Wednesday, June 19, 2024

A car is taken by Phil’s Towing n 2016 in a Porter Square, Cambridge, parking lot. (Photo: Ali B. via Yelp)

Phil’s Towing closes Friday after nearly 40 years in business, and owners blame Cambridge’s one-year street cleaning pilot program that began this month with the goal of reducing the financial impact of towing on residents.

Each street in Cambridge is cleaned once a month from April through December, weather permitting. Until this season, residents were expected to move their vehicles from the side of the street being swept or risk being towed; during the pilot, which began April 3, residents are ticketed instead of towed if they don’t move their cars.

The city announced the pilot in January. By February, staff at Phil’s Towing were sending letters to the commissioner of Public Works, the Cambridge Police Department and other municipal offices to try to understand what it meant for their business. “The city never contacted us, notified us, nothing,” manager Billy Megan said.

An email was left with a city spokesperson Thursday after business hours. This post will be updated with a reply.

Street cleaning operation was about 60 percent to 65 percent of Phil’s Towing revenue, and though he worked with Harvard, MIT, Trinity Property Management, Gravestar, the Cambridge Crossing development in North Point and property owner and developer Gerald Chan, “my business was catered to the city of Cambridge,” owner Phil Bard said. “You need an anchor account. And my anchor account was that street-cleaning program, and I built my business around that and that provided with stability.”

By the end of March, Phil’s Towing decided to “cease” towing in Cambridge, since without information from City Hall “we didn’t know what we were doing,” Megan said.

Every year for more than 30 years, Bard said he has donated vehicles to the Cambridge fire and police departments for different types of training, and now will no longer be able to provide these resources to the community.

“This year, I sent three cars over to the fire academy in Brookline for the use of the Jaws of Life to train these firemen to get familiar with the equipment they use,” said Bard, a fourth-generation Cantabrigian whose family members were firefighters, police officers, barbers and nurse’s aides at the old Cambridge City Hospital and has gone on to sponsor baseball and softball teams and be a reliable donor to city charities. “These are the things that people don’t see. They don’t see the behind-the-scenes things that I’ve done for the city.”

Expensive business, valuable land

Phil’s Towing at 333 Webster Ave., in Cambridge’s Wellington-Harrington neighborhood. (Photo: Google)

Residents who don’t move their car will be ticketed $50 for their first two offenses; the vehicle will be towed on the third offense. The tickets, which are up from $30, aim to drastically reduce towing and impound bills: A City Council policy order estimated $100 for an initial towing fee, a $30 ticket from the Traffic, Parking and Transportation Department, a holding charge of $35 a day from the impound lot and a $25 bill in the mail if the vehicle is not picked up within 48 hours.

People also sometimes have to pay to get to the impound lot – maybe a ride share or taxi – to pay fees and get their car back.

The towing company and lot was at 333 Webster Ave., Wellington-Harrington, a 6,032-square-foot lot on the city line. It’s an industrial area not far from Somerville’s Union Square, which is being transformed into high-rise residences, labs and offices by a master developer around a new green line MBTA station.

Quinton Zondervan, whose policy order led to the street-cleaning pilot, said that the value of the land leased by Phil’s – owned by a Laconia, New Hampshire, real estate trust – suggested to him that the towing company was unlikely to stay much longer anyway. “The land is too valuable for that,” Zondervan said.

“I hope to see affordable housing built there under the new proposed Affordable Housing Overlay, which contemplates more height in this area, but unfortunately it is likely to turn into another biolab, as the council rejected my recent proposal to limit new biolab development in this area,” Zondervan added.

One tow company remains

Bard and Megan don’t see Phil’s Towing coming back, no matter how the city’s test goes.

“I sold all the trucks, laid off all the employees – seven Cambridge guys worked here for nine years in the city for Phil’s Towing, and now they’re all out of jobs, all Cambridge residents,” Megan said.

At 63, Bard said he’s in good shape and expects to have a second act in Cambridge – after he “takes a breather” to let go of towing, which he”s done since he was 19, and a company he built from scratch that allowed him only a pair of one-week vacations in nearly four decades. What he does next won’t be towing. “That part of my life’s behind me,” Bard said.

Phil’s had a contract with the city that guaranteed approximately 3,000 cars a year expiring Aug. 21, Megan said, which was renewed from years prior. The company’s 2014-2015 street-cleaning season contract became public in 2016 and outlined projected tows for three towing companies — Phil’s, Pat’s Towing at 505 Medford St., Somerville, and B&B Towing at 50 Mooney St., in the Cambridge Highlands. 

B&B manager Mike Sorrentino said his company agreed to the same city contract terms as Phil’s and has seen a decrease in towing since the pilot began. Since Phil’s went out of business, B&B has almost been able to supplement the loss of street cleaning tows by covering the entirety of Cambridge.

Still, Sorrentino estimates the business is losing 3,000 to 5,000 vehicles a year because of the pilot. “We concentrated on street cleaning every day five days a week for nine months,” Sorrentino said. “The loss of income is going to affect us big time.”

Prediction comes true

City councillor Paul Toner predicted during debate over the street-cleaning test that it might shut down the city’s towing companies. He was not surprised Thursday when the rumors of Phil’s closing were confirmed.

“My concern was exactly this is, of local working-class people losing jobs as a result of a policy that in my opinion was unnecessary,” Toner said.

While there was testimony during those meetings about the inconvenience of having cars towed, there was also an “outpouring” of residents who said that they wanted to keep towing because “they didn’t see it as a major issue and they want to clean streets. And, you know, sadly, people are now going to see real job loss as a result of this,” Toner said, with the added risk that drivers whose cars get towed may soon have to go out of the city to get them back.

“We may be looking for a tow company to service the city again if we go back to traditional street cleaning,” Toner said.

This post as updated April 14, 2023, with comments and information from Phil Bard and Mike Sorrentino and additional comments from councillor Quinton Zondervan.