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Hook Happy

Joe’s Osborne Street Garage is under fire for illegal tows and unpleasant attitudes

It wasn’t until one of his family’s cars was illegally towed for the third time from the same spot that John Cutro really started to get frustrated with Joe’s Osborne Street Garage.

“At first, I thought it was just a misunderstanding,” he said. “It didn’t occur to me that the car had been towed illegally.”

Problems first arose two years ago when Osborne towed a vehicle used by Cutro, a caretaker of the Albany Friends Meeting House, from a spot on Hamilton Street near the meeting. After convincing the garage that they had erred, Cutro was forced to repeat the process earlier this year, as two more family vehicles parked in the same spot ended up on the business end of an Osborne hook.

Cutro has now learned that the sign that had hung on a nearby fence for more than 30 years, alerting drivers that the small spot on Hamilton was reserved for members of the Albany Friends Meeting, didn’t constitute any actual right to the spot. Still, Cutro had just as much right to park there as anyone else. And Osborne Street’s contract was to remove unauthorized vehicles from a private parking area across the street from where Cutro was parked, not from the side of the street he was on.

“Per your towing contract with the city, it is illegal for your company or any other towing company to remove vehicles from the city of Albany streets or right-of-ways without the permission of the city through the Albany Police Department,” wrote Patrick Jordan, an assistant corporation counsel for the city, in a July 14 letter to Joseph Gimondo, owner of Joe’s Osborne Street Garage. In the letter, Jordan warns the garage that removal of a vehicle from city property—which that long-reserved spot on Hamilton is—without the explicit permission of the city “will place your contract with the City of Albany in jeopardy.”

Cutro said the garage’s stubborn refusal to refund the latest towing fee isn’t what frustrates him the most—it’s the way they do business. According to Cutro, his efforts to retrieve cars from the garage have been met with laughter, rude dismissal and accusations of dishonesty.

“One time, the police officer I called used my cell phone to call the garage,” laughed Cutro. “Well, apparently they had some sort of caller identification system and didn’t believe he was a real policeman. Judging by his side of the conversation, he received the same rude treatment I did.”

And Cutro isn’t alone in casting a critical eye on local towing companies. In recent years, bills have been introduced in Congress and more than a dozen state legislatures targeting the “predatory” practices of towing companies.

“[Towing companies] are all too anxious to tow cars and make it difficult to retrieve them,” said Rep. James Moran (D-Vir.) in a July 19, 2004, Washington Times interview. Moran, who sponsored a bill last year that would give local municipalities the ability to regulate the towing companies that operate within their borders, and eventually won passage of an amendment this year that gives states more control over the practices of towing companies.

Tracy Fears experienced the difficulties of dealing with Joe’s last weekend. According to Fears, a long line at the Mobil gas station at Madison Avenue and Lark Street prompted her to park her car—with its sputtering, near-empty gas tank—in the station’s parking lot while she waited for the line to diminish. She bought a pack of gum (“Making me a paying customer,” she later argued) and walked across the street to chat with a friend until some pumps freed up. When she returned less than five minutes later, the front, driver’s side wheel had been booted, and a note from Osborne, which contracts with the station, was wedged underneath her windshield wiper.

Upon calling the number provided, she was told it would be 20 to 30 minutes before anyone could remove the boot. After 20 minutes, she called again to ask about the garage employee’s whereabouts and was laughed at; meanwhile, a truck bearing the garage’s logo was at work in a lot across the street. Forty-five minutes later, the employee arrived, only to cut short Fears’ explanations.

“I don’t care—it’s $54,” interrupted the employee, who refused to tell Fears his full name. “And I’m not going to argue with you about it.”

And it’s exactly that sort of attitude, said Cutro, that’s causing so much bad blood between the garage and the public. Cutro said he intends to take the garage to court if he isn’t refunded the most recent towing fee. And, he added, the “mysterious” disappearance of the sign posted by the Albany Friends’ “reserved” spot just a few days after he lodged a complaint about the illegal tow doesn’t help matters.

“The thing is, I want something more valuable than just the towing fee to come out of this,” said Cutro. “These sort of practices need to stop.”

Calls were placed to Osborne for comment, but a garage employee said Gimondo was “not interested” in responding.

—Rick Marshall

What a Week

Slap Happy

Moving on from his recent outing of local bribe-takers FLY-92 for their involvement in the Sony payola scam, N.Y. Attorney General Eliot Spitzer has announced that he has come to a settlement with New York City radio station WQHT Hot 97. This settlement was not for payola but rather for holding “Smackfest” contests where women were encouraged to slap each other for cash prizes. “This agreement should be a wake up call to all those in the entertainment industry who think outrageousness is a clever marketing tactic,” said Spitzer.

Honoring Albany’s Activists

The Albany City School District recently announced that the new middle school at Kelton Court will be named after Stephen and Harriet Myers, publishers of The Northern Star and Freeman’s Advocate, an abolitionist newspaper, and local leaders of the Underground Railroad. The school is set to open Sept. 7, with Kimberly Wilkins, former principal of the city’s PS 16, serving as its principal.

You Wanted Us to Meet?

The civil-liberties board ordered into existence by the Intelligence Reform law of December 2004 still has yet to meet. The five members of the board appointed by President Bush are tasked with monitoring the war on terrorism’s effect on civil liberties. Critics claim the board is toothless and underfunded. They also think it would be just peachy if the board could manage to get together to discuss the effect of the Patriot Act, parts of which are currently up for reauthorization. They are not holding their breath.

Laughable or Scary?

In a recent rundown of 2008 presidential possibilities, Daily Show host Jon Stewart could barely contain himself at the notion of New York’s current governor’s bid for the presidency, breaking into laughter at the mention of “President Pataki.” Of course, several recent and sudden shifts in the governor’s policies toward a more conservative platform might indicate that Pataki doesn’t think it’s such a funny idea. Whether he gets the Republican nod or not, expect Pataki to bring more attention—from blue and red states alike—to the Empire State in the coming years.



"So I gave him $50 for 'cheese' from Vermont, and he brought back $50 worth of actual cheese! It was damn good cheese though."

—late night at the Old Songs Festival campground

Sprawl Games

Threat of a Wal-Mart in Ballston spurs debate over the town’s development future

The plot of land at the inter section of Routes 50 and 67 in Ballston looks ordinary enough. Besides a few yards of orange fence, there is just overgrown grass and shrubbery, with pines and maples rising like walls along the fringes and sporadic patches of purple wildflowers blooming throughout. Among the grasses, one can glimpse unmanned construction vehicles, but these are the only indications of the struggle over the land’s future. There is little to distinguish this plot except the buzz over whether or not a Wal-Mart should be built there.

That question is a microcosm of a rigorous debate within Ballston over the future of the town as a whole—a debate being conducted in jam-packed, into-the-night public forums and letters to the editor, Internet postings and radio talk-shows, political campaigns and grass-roots movements, and signs with slogans like “Yes to Wal-Mart” or “Sprawl Mart” (with a red slash through the words) taped to storefront windows or stuck in front lawns.

On July 6, the town extended a six-month moratorium on all commercial construction, which was originally passed in February in order to delay the construction of Wal-Mart and other large-scale commercial enterprises so the town could update its master plan, which had not been updated since the 1980s. The town board created the Comprehensive Plan Advisory Committee to lead the effort.

CPAC is working with Saratoga Associates, an independent company that specializes in what Dan Sitler, Saratoga Associates’ principal in charge of the Ballston project, described as “participatory community process” that involves “consulting work with communities to shape vision into plan.”

In a poll conducted by Saratoga Associates, when asked to choose only one thing that would be an improvement in the area in which the respondent lived, 28.9 percent of residents selected preventing the loss of open space and rural character—a 10-percent margin over the second most selected option. Saratoga Associates and CPAC’s draft proposal seeks to address this concern through a series of measures, including a 60,000-square-foot cap on all commercial development and “mixed use centers,” which, according to the draft, seek to “provide a social and commercial core for a community” while also offering residential options in order to create the atmosphere of a small town.

The plan is drawing fire from some town residents who worry that it will stunt commercial growth and prevent the construction of convenient shopping locations. Ballston has no grocery store, and a 60,000-square-foot cap could prevent the construction of one.

Gina Rossi Marozzi, the land developer who is trying to sell the plot of land at Routes 50 and 67 to Wal-Mart, and the Bridgewater Group, another land developer seeking to prepare land for large-scale commercial development along Route 50 (rumored to be a Home Depot), insist that large-scale development can help Ballston by expanding infrastructure in the developed areas, contributing to town taxes, and allowing residents to shop in town, rather than traveling to nearby Milton or Clifton Park shopping areas.

Opposition to CPAC’s proposals is not limited solely to those who have a financial interest in the land’s development. Linda Lambert has been a resident of Ballston for 18 years, and is the owner of Kaleidoscope Gifts at Hearth and Home Antiques in downtown Ballston Spa. Lambert supports the construction of Wal-Mart and other large commercial businesses in Ballston because “they are able and willing to contribute millions of dollars for major road and intersection work that small businesses are not in a position to do,” and because “right now there is no place in the village [for residents] to fulfill their general needs.” She does not worry about losing business to Wal-Mart because she believes that her store and the other stores of Ballston offer specialty goods that a large store like Wal-Mart does not.

What does worry Lambert is the CPAC proposal. Lambert sees the mixed-use centers as threats to the livelihood of downtown Ballston Spa, because they would create similarly sized stores to the Ballston Spa shops, but would be able to offer more convenient parking. Other citizens are concerned over proposed increases in housing density, which they see as potential threats to the town’s rural character. Some see parts of the proposal, such as a provision that would prohibit the construction of garages that face the street, as limits on individual architectural choice and taste.

Sitler said that the opposition of some to the CPAC proposal is “not unusual,” and that “design and development standards are a way of compromise.” And despite some opposition, reaction to CPAC’s efforts has been largely positive.

Lynn Prentice, one of the founding members of Ballston Concerned Citizens for Sustainable Communities, has been lobbying the town to update its master plan since before the Wal-Mart controversy began. After seeing the plans to develop the neighboring town of Malta, Prentice said that Ballston’s citizens have realized that they are “at risk for rampant, reckless development.” She cited both the Saratoga Associates survey and a second survey conducted by the town’s Land Conservation Committee as evidence that “over 75 percent of the town wants open-space protection.” She lauded CPAC’s draft plan as being “representative of what the town at large wants,” and she supports the controversial 60,000 square foot cap on commercial development, insisting that “this town is a small town” and “we don’t have the infrastructure to support that type of development.”

The draft plan is currently undergoing revisions as the CPAC members meet almost every week to debate the draft among themselves and with the public. Copies of the draft are available at the town’s Web site (www.townofballston and also at the Town of Ballston Public Library.

—Ben Crair


Sixty Years of Living With the Bomb

photo:Chris Shields

As part of a wide range of events last weekend marking the 60th anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima (Aug. 6), activists chalked outlines on sidewalks throughout the region to represent those caught in the blast who were reduced to nothing but a shadow outline on the ground or a building.



Loose Ends

Gov. Pataki has vetoed the Unintended Pregnancy Act, which would have provided broader access to emergency contraception by allowing pharmacies to dispense it with a non-patient-specific prescription [“Pharm Stand,” May 26]. Reproductive-health activists call the veto “a tragedy” that will cause thousands of unneccessary abortions. . . . Entergy, which manages the Indian Point nuclear power plant, has finally agreed to provide backup power systems to its emergency siren system [“No Need for Lights When You’re Glowing,” What a Week, April 7], after Sen. Hillary Clinton included a provision to force it to do so in the Nuclear Security Act of 2005. Environmental groups applauded the action, while questioning why it had taken so long.

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