‘Highway robbery’ of towing hits Riverdale

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The towing company that has been hauling away cars from the Skyview shopping center on Riverdale Avenue has been seizing cars merely moments after their drivers stepped across the street, demanding cash payments on the spot, and at least on one occasion, tried to pull away a car with people inside, according to residents’ and business owners’ accounts. 

The practices of Riverdale Towing Associates, whose trucks and employees have been haunting the shopping center’s parking lot for many weeks now, have prompted some to question the legality of the company’s business methods and to complain that legal or not, the methods were a far cry from good-neighbor practices some would expect from a company with the word “Riverdale” in its name. 

“They hide behind a van [in the parking lot], they want cash on the spot,” Paul Gallo, a Riverdale resident of 35 years, told The Press. He described the methods as “highway robbery” and a “strong-arm tactic.” 

The company denies any dubious practices. A representative who described himself as a business “partner” of the owner and only gave his first name, Mike, claimed he and his associates gave drivers a grace period of “10-15 minutes” to come back to their cars after stepping across the street, before the towing company hauls the car away. 

“I never demand cash,” he said, and also denied accusations that his company has ever tried to tow cars “with people in them.” 

But multiple accounts by towing victims paint a different picture. 

Michael Rymer, a local resident, said he drove to the shopping center with his family for a hair appointment in late October, saw that he arrived too early and went to get food from a Japanese restaurant across the street for the family to enjoy while they waited for the appointment. Mr. Rymer’s wife, their 6-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son remained in the car, he said. 

He was away for a mere minutes when a distress call prompted him to rush back: “I got a call from my wife saying that they [had] started towing my car, with the kids in it, and with my wife in the car,” Mr. Rymer told The Press. 

“They hooked up the car and started to raise it, before she got their attention and got them to stop,” he said. 

Mr. Rymer conceded that towing truck operators appeared to have simply failed to see through the car’s tinted side-windows that it was occupied. But checking that nobody was inside should be standard practice for towing companies, he maintained

“They didn’t apologize after finding there were people in the car,” Mr. Rymer said. And the incident “did scare my children. They talked about it afterwards.” 

Riverdale Towing Associates have been hired, local business owners say, by the company that runs the parking lot and the stores’ space around it, Braun Management. The owners of individual stores are tenants, renting their space from Braun Management. Many storeowners who spoke to The Press about the towing asked not to be identified for this article, saying they feared problems with renewing their leases. 

The words that came up frequently in The Press’ conversations with store owners included “aggressive towing,” “horror stories” and “a toxic atmosphere” that business owners said Riverdale Towing Associates and its employer allegedly created at the shopping center. 

Gary Wartel, the head of the North Riverdale Merchants Association who runs Skyview Wine and Liquor store at the shopping center, said he has written to Braun Management repeatedly, asking questions about the towing operations, but was yet to receive an answer. At least two of Mr. Wartel’s employees had their cars towed away from the parking lot, despite having stickers identifying them as property of local businesses’ employees, he said. 

Braun Management did not respond to a request for comment by print time Tuesday.

Many storeowners said they have been losing customers over the turmoil, with regulars fearing to shop at a mall where their cars may get towed away. 

Mr. Gallo, the longtime Riverdale resident, said many cars have been towed when their drivers walked across Riverdale Avenue to take out cash from Chase bank across the street, before returning to shop at the Skyview center. 

This is what happened to Mr. Gallo in late November, he said, when he stopped by at the Chase bank to get cash before going into Key Food to buy food for his cat and a lottery ticket at a nearby store for himself. 

“I was not gone for more than five minutes,” before returning to see his car being towed away, he said. 

The Chase branch now has signs decorating its doors and teller windows that read: “Please be aware – if you are parked in the Key Food parking lot, you will get towed.” 

Mr Gallo said he asked the towing truck operators to unload his car, and “they said they would do it, for $68.” 

“They demanded that I pay on the spot,” he said. He paid, in cash, and got his car back, Mr. Gallo said. 

But drivers who stay away a few moments longer are less fortunate. Getting their cars back from Riverdale Towing Associates’ impound lot requires a larger payment and a trip to 2768 Webster Ave. 

Just as a Press journalist was walking into the shopping center’s parking lot in early afternoon Monday to speak with local small-business owners, two women stood by the shopping center’s driveway, trying to negotiate with the towing company for the release of their car. It would cost them $136 to pick up the car from the Webster Avenue impound lot, the driver, Debra Swiecicki, quoted the towing company’s employee as telling her. She said she did not know the name of the person on the other end of the line. But Riverdale Towing Associates’ Mike had told The Press earlier that he was “always” the one answering the phones. 

“He said: ‘I saw you walk across the street,’” Ms. Swiecicki told The Press. She conceded she might be partially to blame for the incident, acknowledging that she had indeed gone across the street to have lunch at Madison’s restaurant. 

According to figures cited by drivers, the payments the towing company had allegedly charged for releasing their cars ranged from about $60 to more than $300. The Press could not independently verify the numbers.   Although nobody, except perhaps the towing company, appears to have kept a tally of the number of cars getting towed, the count reached at least a dozen a day, according to an estimate by Laurence Addeo, the owner of a Lotto store and of Addeo’s pizzeria across Riverdale Avenue from the parking lot. 

Local politicians, such as Councilman Andrew Cohen and Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz, have urged the city to investigate and block the practices of what Mr. Dinowitz described as “repeat offender towing companies.”

In response, Riverdale Towing Associates’ Mike is now threatening to sue his critics: “My lawyer’s on top of that,” he said. 

Whether or not the company’s methods are legal, they are not what neighbors said they expect from a local company

“The company is called ‘Riverdale Towing Associates, LLC,’” Mr. Gallo said. “How did they get a name like that? I don’t know… It’s not what we want to have, as a neighborhood.”