A disappearing car trick at Piazza at Schmidts

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"Hopefully it will still be here tomorrow," says Kevin Ricker as walks away from his 2010 Mazda 3 after it was towed away and then towed back to the Piazza at Schmidts on October 30, 2014. ( ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer )

For more than a year, Kevin Ricker enjoyed parking next to his $2,000-a-month apartment at the Piazza at Schmidts. He earned that right when he signed a lease to live at ground zero of the Northern Liberties redevelopment boom.

On Thursday, however, he awoke to find that convenience had vanished - the financial analyst and 21 other Piazza residents could not find their cars.

The culprit was not a thief, but an invisible foe who had issued an overnight towing order for reasons that remained shadowy as the day wore on.

Was this a beef over a property dispute? Something else?

Answers were elusive as Ricker, 27, and his neighbors, whose wheels remained impounded for $300 apiece by towing company George Smith Inc., waited for their cars to be released.

"I'm sitting here not being able to work," Ricker said, exasperated by his missing Mazda. "I'm missing a day of work over this."

Anthony Pell, 24, also feared the repercussions of not making it to his commercial real estate job in King of Prussia. His Volkswagen was gone.

"My bosses are not understanding about me missing work," Pell said.

Westminster, the management arm of Piazza owner Kushner Cos., said that the cars were not illegally parked and that neither it nor Kushner had ordered the towing.

"Somebody that is not in any shape or form associated with Westminster called the towing company and gave them instructions to do it," community manager Amy Gardiner said, adding there was "no good reason" for it.

She declined to cite specifics but said the tow company could explain.

A man who described himself as tow operator George Smith's second-in-command was not explaining anything: "I can't give no comment on that right now." Smith also was unavailable when a reporter visited his tow lot on South 61st Street in Southwest Philadelphia.

Ricker, meanwhile, said he had been told by a Piazza official that Bart Blatstein's Tower Investments Inc. reportedly had issued the order, and that the towing company had relayed that information when the management company called for answers.

Asked whether he or his company was behind the towing order, Blatstein said: "It's all Kushner-controlled."

Blatstein said he no longer had an equity stake in the apartment complex he developed and then sold in 2013 but still owned the ground on which the lot in question was located. He suggested someone was trying to "pass the buck" over the tow job.

Neither Blatstein nor a member of his Tower staff had asked for the cars to be towed, said Frank Keel, a spokesman for the company. Keel said he did not know who did.

Since September 2013, Ricker has left his car overnight on the unpaved lot across the street. The onetime fee: $100.

This year, Westminster sent out a letter with new instructions because the lot had been reconfigured in a way that removed spaces, Ricker said.

Overflow would be accommodated in an adjacent lot for visitors, the letter said, according to Ricker. It was from that lot that the cars were hitched and hauled overnight.

Gardiner said that the cars were not illegally parked and that the towing order was mean spirited. Kushner had arranged to get all cars back by day's end, at the landlord's expense.

During afternoon rush hour, Ricker took an Uber ride to the tow lot in Southwest Philadelphia, only to be sent back to the Piazza. His car was on its way back.

The tow truck operator was just pulling out after dropping off the Mazda when Ricker returned home around 5 p.m.

"Hopefully," he said, tapping his car, "it'll still be here tomorrow."

 


mpanaritis@phillynews.com

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@Panaritism