Tow-away zones that lie

Construction "no parking" not always legal
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Parking a car is notoriously difficult in San Francisco, where you can be towed for blocking a driveway, occupying a bus zone, failing to move your vehicle at certain times of the day, or being in a posted construction zone.

But many of those construction zone tow-away signs may be fake, a problem that the city does little to enforce and the public has a hard time discerning.

Contractors sometimes simply purchase a sign for $2 and post it without the legal right to do so. Often it's an innocent error by out-of-town contractors who don't know to apply for a street space parking permit. Other times it can be an interim step by contractors waiting for the right to reserve a spot outside their job site or by contractors who never met with a Department of Public Works inspector to determine the hours and scope of their parking needs.

Theoretically, parkers are free to ignore these fake signs. But it's hard for the public to tell a fake sign from a real one unless they contact the city. And who does that while hunting for a parking space?

The streets are considered part of the public's right-of-way. In addition to a construction permit, a street space permit is necessary if contractors will block the right-of-way, although underground services such as utility companies remain exempt.

The DPW issued 9,020 street space permits in 2006, according to spokesperson Christine Falvey. That year 93 citations were issued to property owners whose contractors did not have valid street space permits; all of those citations were prompted by citizen complaints.

"Street space violations are not proactive, they are reactive," said Dan McKenna, deputy manager of the DPW's Bureau of Street Use and Mapping, which handles these permits and violations.

In other words, a construction zone tow-away sign will never be challenged if the public does not ask the DPW or the Department of Building Inspection, which has its own street space permit desk, to go out and validate it.

That's what happened at the corner of Haight and Shrader streets last October when Service Concrete of Daly City got a valid permit for street space and sidewalk repair but failed to meet with a DPW inspector. Contractors often want to claim more spaces, for more hours, than what the inspectors may ultimately be willing to approve.

Service Concrete never scheduled a meeting with the department, nor did it register the times of enforcement. Therefore, it never had a legal right to tow anyone or reserve those parking spots, according to DPW deputy manager John Kwong.

"They never contacted the department to schedule a meeting for the street space occupancy," Kwong said. "Therefore, the street space permit is not considered valid. They're not supposed to occupy." But they did, and the job was completed with at least four parking meters marked for tow-away.

A call to the phone number on the permit resulted in the contractor telling the Guardian, "I don't remember. Even if you tell me, I won't remember. I can't comment on anything on this."

In April, the NEQE construction company received a building permit for a seismic retrofit at 240 Golden Gate Ave. It requested a street space permit May 11 and immediately posted no-parking signs. However, it did not have a site inspection, and the actual street space permit wasn't issued until May 26, according to Nick Elsner, senior plan checker with the Bureau of Street Use and Mapping.

The initial tow-away signs were for seven days a week, 24 hours a day until November, although the permit on file said the contractor needed the space from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., Mondays through Saturdays. The contractor eventually received 60 linear feet for three parking spaces for the limited time frame.

"They didn't put it in the computer," a representative of NEQE told us. "What happened on the job site, we put up the sign for the parking permit.