The pre-pay machine at Woodard's lot provides instructions, but it can't stop human error.
Towing from his downtown lot has prompted plenty of complaints about Keith Woodard, but are the arguments valid?
File photo by Lisa Provence
It was supposed to be a fun night out on the Downtown Mall for a pair of mothers: dinner followed by a show, then home to their families. But on April 17, after shelling out nearly $80 for tickets to see Nanci Griffith at the Paramount, and dropping another $140 at Hamiltons' restaurant, not to mention paying $10 for four hours of pre-paid parking, the good times came to a screeching halt when the two women returned to the lot across Market Street from Lee Park just before 11pm to an unwelcome discovery. The minivan was gone.
"I thought it had been stolen," says Ginny Anderson, an oncology nurse who says she'd paid to park in the lot on many other occasions without incident. In fact, Anderson and her friend would soon figure out, their car had been taken– but not by a thief. It had been towed.
Getting it back wasn't only time consuming and expensive; Anderson says it was dangerous, as she and her friend called Collier's Towing Service and learned cash was their only after-hours payment option, forcing them to seek an ATM on foot to retrieve the $145 cash required. Then, as midnight approached, the women took a cab to the impound lot nearly a mile away on the dark and lightly traveled Fifth Street, behind Zinc restaurant on West Main.
"It is appalling to think that this practice of towing people who accidentally overextend their parking time would be acceptable to Keith Woodard (the owner of the lot) and to the businesses and the patrons of the Downtown Mall," Anderson writes in an email, explaining that the concert ran later than she and her friend had expected, and admitting their parking allotment may have expired about 45 minutes before their return.
Citing the murder of college student Morgan Harrington and recent armed robberies including an April 26 incident outside Burnley-Moran Elementary School on Long Street, Anderson contends that towing cars– even those breaking rules– and leaving their drivers stranded at night is "negligent, abusive, and extreme."
Gil Harrington agrees.
Her daughter, Morgan, disappeared in late 2009 after leaving the John Paul Jones Arena during a Metallica concert. The 20-year-old's decomposed remains were found three months later on an Albemarle County farm. With her daughter's killer still on the loose, Gil Harrington says the thought of leaving women stranded without vehicles chills her.
"It sets you up to be targeted by people with bad intentions," says Harrington. "Especially in that town where there's been a lot of crime against women, it doesn't seem like it's the best policy."
Many others have felt fear and frustration after getting stranded downtown. Since 2007, the Hook has reported on numerous other downtown visitors who had similar experiences at Woodard's lot including June and Paul Russell, who'd come downtown for lunch in August 2007 to celebrate June's 74th birthday. When the septuaganarians discovered their car had been towed, a passerby advised they could walk to Collier's off of West Main, but the nearly mile-long trek was overwhelming for the pair, who suffered from arthritis and heart problems.
It was stories like the Russells' that prompted top City Planner Jim Tolbert to express his outrage to Woodard in an email.
"I know you think the signage you have is enough, but there are too many intelligent people that this happens to," Tolbert told Woodard. "It is giving C'ville a bad rep, and I would hope you would be ashamed to be a part of it."
At the time, Woodard Properties responded by adding lights, increasing the signs, and placing a canopy over the pre-pay machine. The real estate developer declined at the time to speak to reporters.
Today, a spokesperson for Woodard Properties says there are plans to further improve signage and notes that the firm has instructed Collier's Towing Company to hold off on towing for an unspecified "grace period" after someone's paid parking expires.
"We prefer that no one get towed," says Woodard spokesperson Michael Morris, who portrays towing as an unfortunate necessity.
"If we didn't enforce it," Morris says, "we'd have people parking in there all the time without paying."
In spite of the signage changes, towing complaints are still rolling in, and an assistant city attorney says he's investigating the legalities of creating a new city towing ordinance, which by state law, would require the formation of an advisory board to make recommendations, which could include a price cap. In Richmond, for instance, the maximum fee is $95, and UVA caps towing from its grounds at $50.
In his agreement with Collier's, Woodard sets the maximum fee at $95– but tack on $25 for an "after-hours release fee," and another $25 for a "parking fee," the latter which Collier's hands over to Woodard, and you have the $145 total Anderson was cited. (Had the moms been driving an all-wheel-drive vehicle, the news would have been even worse, as Collier's owner Glenda Jones says she charges $25 if special equipment is needed. Such vehicles, she says, must be hoisted entirely off the ground to avoid damage.)
"City Council is going to be considering what to do over the next few weeks," says Assistant City Attorney Rich Harris.
While Anderson and others primarily cite safety considerations for those whose vehicles have been towed, others contend that towing cars from downtown lots simply sends visitors the wrong message.
"It's out of proportion to the offense," says Bob Stroh.
The boss of the Charlottesville Parking Center, Stroh operates three downtown parking facilities, a lot and a garage on Water Street and another garage on Market Street. While all three operations employ attendants to enforce payment (and thereby prevent many of the infractions that might lead to towing), Stroh insists his company goes to great lengths to avoid towing customers, even when they're parked illegally.
"We view our parking facility as the first place people see when they come downtown and the last place people see when they leave downtown," says Stroh. "We want to leave people with that good feeling no matter what their experience."
While Stroh asserts that people who deliberately violate posted parking rules should face consequences of some type, he recommends a warning for first-time offenders and notes that in his experience, most parking violations stem from simple human error– forgetting to put a ticket on a dash or failing, while out with friends, to check the clock.
That was the case last month when a man returned to the parking lot on Elliewood Avenue owned by Piedmont Parking to discover the wheels of his car already hoisted onto a truck. The man, David Grubbs, told NBC29 and the Newsplex that he'd accidentally put his parking ticket in his pocket rather than on the dash of his car. And although he arrived before his vehicle was removed, and with the parking ticket as proof of payment, the tow truck driver initially refused to release the vehicle unless Grubbs paid the full $125 towing fee.
While Grubbs could not be reached by presstime, across-the-street store owner Paul Collinge of Heartwood Books watched the exchange with dismay.
"The tow truck driver could see the receipt," Collinge told City Council during the public comments section of the April 16 meeting, noting that after Grubbs summoned a police officer, the tow truck driver agreed to release the car for $25.
In fact, according to Barbara Drudge, interim executive director of the Virginia Board of Towing and Recovery Operators, a state agency that oversees the industry, if a car has already been hitched to the truck, the driver has a right to full payment. If the car owner arrives before the vehicle has been hitched, however, the legal maximum to release the vehicle is $25.
As for the price of towing, state law caps it at $125 during the day, $150 on nights and weekends. In addition, lot owners may charge a "parking fee," which in Woodard's case is $25. While legal, it's a fee that seems predatory, says David Post, an attorney who was towed from Woodard's lot earlier this year. (See sidebar essay: "How $2.75 generates $145.")
What about towing companies demanding cash on the spot? While few people carry $150 and while credit or debit cards have become the new legal tender, Drudge says it's perfectly legal for after-hours transactions, especially since drivers may be the only ones on duty for the business and may not have access to credit card machines.
Reached by phone, Collinge says watching Corner customers cope with a towing upsets him, and it's not the only thing that angers him about that Elliewood lot, where a machine recently replaced a human attendant, leading, he believes, to confusion among parkers who were accustomed to the old system.
"There was almost no transition," he told City Council, calling the signs explaining the new system "completely inadequate."
Even more offensive to Collinge is the fact that the new machine accepts cash but won't give change. That means someone who puts in a $20 bill for an hour of parking is simply out of luck.
The owner of the lot, Piedmont Virginia Parking Company, which appears to be run by Robin Lee of R.E. Construction, did not return the Hook's repeated calls.
Collinge, however, says the old adage "the customer comes first" apparently doesn't apply at Piedmont.
"They periodically severely punish their own patrons," Collinge told Council, joking that if he refused to give a customer change at his store, "I would run out of customers very fast."
It's a sentiment echoed by the owner of a nearby parking lot, who says he can't understand towing cars whose owners have paid to be there and who are shopping at area stores– even if they run over their allotted time.
"I hate towing people," says Chris Farina, proprietor of the Corner Parking Lot. "These are the people who are keeping the stores in business."
Like the downtown parking garages run by Stroh, Farina employs attendants, who collect money as patrons exit– something that might minimize the need for towing.
But if the stories of towed patrons get many people's blood boiling, Woodard spokesperson Morris says at a certain point, drivers simply need to take responsibility.
"We don't feel we've set up an unfair system," says Morris, pointing out that downtown parking is in high demand, particularly in the evening. Indeed, the full-day fee for parking at Woodard's lot is $20.
"There's no place to park that's free," says Morris. "Anyone that comes in thinking that is being naive."