Tow Be or Not Tow Be

To live in Denver in the spring is to enjoy the songs of birds, the warmth of sunshine, the scent of blossoming flowers. Other pleasures include the sight of abandoned cars at the curb and the stench of slow-dripping oil and gasoline puddling beneath metallic heaps of junk.

Each day, the city's parking-management office receives 35 phone calls from residents who want these eyesores removed, says assistant parking director Tom Reilly. And each day, city tow-truck drivers haul away between six and ten abandoned vehicles.

But these vehicles need not fear the tow trucks any longer.
Last month, Captain Chuck Enriquez, commander of towed vehicles, decreed that beginning on April 23, a new policy would take effect for abandoned vehicles: Don't tow them.

Or, at least, call before you do.
Enriquez told his colleagues in the police and parking departments that the city's temporary impound, 5160 York Street, is teetering at full capacity and that the new neighboring facility, which was to open June 1, is behind schedule.

Way behind schedule.
As of last week, demolition crews were still tearing down the final three of 27 buildings at the site. They have yet to level the soil, pave the ground, raise a fence or hire security guards. In fact, a budget for the project still needs to be assigned, much less approved. Enriquez says the city needs to spend at least $1.5 to $2 million dollars to get the project rolling once demolition is complete. He adds that he's not sure when the money will be approved or, more important, when the new facility will open and regular towing operations can resume. "Can't even ballpark it," Enriquez says. "I'm waiting for a budget decision myself, and then I'll let you know."

Ken Matthews, project manager for the city, says the new impound is "several months behind" because it took longer than expected to acquire the surrounding acreage from landowners. Matthews had planned to buy the nine acres at 5280 Columbine Street by September 1, 1998, but the landowners held out until April 1 of this year ("One Tow Over the Line," July 30, 1998). Matthews says architectural designs for the project will be completed as soon as next week and a price tag attached. Only then can a budget be defined.

Considering that the current impound was built to hold 1,200 cars and today has between 1,400 and 1,500, trying to find space there may be futile.

Towed cars are usually reclaimed by their owners in a matter of days, creating quick turnover in terms of space and cash. The impound also makes money and additional space when its twice-monthly auctions are held. But every day, the impound receives between forty and fifty cars, many of which are kept as police evidence from DUI, drug and other cases. On April 30, for example, the lot had 37 open spaces. When that number dips to twenty, Enriquez enforces a "priority only" order, which reserves the final spots for evidence cars. As a result, abandoned cars stay on the streets.

That was the case on May 2 and 3, when Enriquez had to close the lot because it had reached capacity. Since April 23, Enriquez estimates that the impound has taken in only "a few" abandoned vehicles. To make things worse, at the old Stapleton Airport, where 100 cars are temporarily stored inside an asbestos-ridden hangar, the city has been evicted because of the hazardous condition and has until May 31 to move, sell or junk the cars.

It doesn't take a mathematician to figure out that in a best-case scenario--if, say, only six cars were ignored each weekday between April 23 and June 1--then at least 168 additional abandoned cars will be waiting for city tow trucks, more than doubling the number of such vehicles currently on the streets.

But again, that's a best-case scenario.
"Remember, they weren't told to stop. They were told to check in first. We'll tell them we can take five or six or four or three or two or one," Enriquez maintains, careful enough not to say "zero." "We'll tell them that we can take whatever we can."

As for a worst-case scenario, if the new impound does not open for a few months, the number of abandoned cars in Denver could increase dramatically.

In 1998, when Mayor Wellington Webb declared the "Year of the Neighborhood" and pledged to sweep the streets of abandoned vehicles after residents voiced complaints, the sheriff's department and parking management combined forces to pick up 300 to 500 cars that were using neighborhood curbs as graveyards. Now parking officials estimate that only 100 abandoned cars call the curbs home.

To the administration's credit, last year's fever for towing helped create the current overflow at the impound, says parking management's Reilly. But when the new impound will open and when abandoned cars can be removed with a "free hand" again, as Enriquez puts it, is open to speculation. Reilly estimates that "it shouldn't be more than a matter of months."

Enriquez says he can't move any of the cars onto the new site until the lengthy process of preparing the land is completed. "You know, I just can't leave cars on an empty lot," he says.

For now, the streets of Denver will have to do.

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