Courting driver fury, group sues PPA to end median parking on Broad

In South Philadelphia, the median of the Broad Street thoroughfare is usually full of parked cars. It’s a long-standing tradition in these densely packed rowhouse neighborhoods, one that provokes astonishment and bemusement in visitors.

But critics of the practice say it is dangerous. Crashes occur when pedestrians dart out from the column of parked vehicles or when a car attempts to jet into traffic from a direction other drivers aren’t expecting.

For the past year, a campaign lead by the urbanist PAC 5th Square sought to pressure the city into removing the vehicles, which technically are illegally parked. Neither the police nor the PPA punish those who flout the law, though, except during special events like the Democratic National Convention.

Now 5th Square is suing the Philadelphia Police Department and the PPA to compel them to enforce the law.

“We’ve tried to work with the city and the parking authority to enforce the existing law,” said Jake Liefer, co-founder of 5th Square, who filed the lawsuit in Philadelphia Common Pleas court today.  “They have not done so, but we believe the enforcement of the law will be upheld by the court.”

Both the City of Philadelphia and the Parking Authority declined to immediately comment for this story.

Whether the lawsuit will survive preliminary motions to dismiss will depend in large part on whether Liefer and his PAC can show that they have standing to sue, meaning a significant enough connection to the harms caused by lax parking enforcement on Broad.

In the filing, 5th Square and Liefer argue that they’ve spent a significant amount of volunteer time and resources trying to convince the authorities to enforce the law. They claim they have suffered harm by losing those resources and, as a result, they have sufficient standing to file the petition.

“We can demonstrate the amount of energy and resources we’ve spent,” said Liefer.  “We’ve also received some pushback from a handful of individuals and the amount of that pushback was significant. It included death threats to myself and my family.”

PlanPhilly sent the petition to several lawyers. None of them believed it would be laughed out of court, although they also did not see it as a surefire strategy.

“At first glance, it appears they cite enough facts that gives them the grounds to move forward,” said Matt Monroe, a veteran zoning lawyer in the city. “It’s a good and colorable claim, not just something you’d crumple up and throw in the waste basket.”

Liefer and the 5th Square cite a decision in a voter ID case, Applewhite v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, which they say shows there is precedent for their argument that wasted organizational resources provide sufficient harm to show standing and allow the lawsuit to proceed to a hearing in front of a judge.

Monroe said that case lends credence to their petition, and shows they’ve done their homework. But he noted that in zoning matters—where the issue of standing is frequently raised—it’s been found that organizations don’t often have standing in such cases.

“By citing the voter ID case, it shows they have a leg to stand on,” said Monroe. “This is not a wild theory or claim, but how it will play out remains to be seen.”

Last year, PlanPhilly estimated that around 200 cars can park in the Broad Street median between Washington Avenue and Oregon Avenue at any given time. Making the practice illegal will not materially affect the traffic-choked parking situation in South Philadelphia, Liefer said, but it will reduce crashes and make the neighborhood’s backbone a safer place for pedestrians, motorists, and bicyclists. He says that crashes are more common south of Washington Avenue on Broad Street, where the median parking exists, than north of it (where the practice is not tolerated).

“This isn’t a publicity stunt,” said Liefer. “We’ve devoted a lot of time and energy to ensuring that residents can travel safely in Philadelphia.”

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