Tourist trap? Parking lot giving City bad rap, officials say
Last Sunday, Orange County resident Michael Knight, his wife and three other couples piled into his Suburban and headed to the Downtown Mall for what they thought would be an enjoyable evening in Charlottesville. They had dinner at the Downtown Grille and took in a movie at the Regal Cinema, but when they returned to the Suburban, the festive spirit ground to a halt.
"There were only three cars in the parking lot, including ours, when we returned around 8:30pm," says Knight. "And all of them had tow trucks behind them."
Knight says the group had pre-paid for three hours of parking but had inadvertently overstayed by about half an hour. Knight says he would have expected some kind of grace period, perhaps a small fine, especially because it was a Sunday and there were so few cars in the lot.
Nope. This was developer Keith Woodard's First & Market parking lot, and it's not a place that tolerates customers who overstay.
Knight says he persuaded the tow-truck driver not to tow the Suburban, but he still had to scrounge up $125 in cash to reclaim his dangling vehicle. The other two parkers in the lot, he says, weren't so fortunate.
"We were over the three-hour time limit by about thirty minutes," explains Knight, admitting his group shouldn't have overstayed. "But something is not right about that system. We thought we were fine with a three-hour ticket on our dash. Obviously, other people in the lot thought they were fine, too."
Knight's experience isn't a new one for unsuspecting visitors. But recently released documents show it can be a painful one.Last November, out-of-town visitors Michael and Susan Daniels celebrated their 18th wedding anniversary with a weekend trip to Charlottesville that included a visit to the Downtown Grille. Again, it was a Sunday night.
"There were other cars parked in the lot, and others were pulling into the lot as we were," Susan Daniels wrote to the Chamber of Commerce. "We mistakenly thought that this was a public lot since there was no attendant on duty, and this was 7pm on a Sunday evening."
After dinner and a pleasant stroll on the Mall, the Daniels returned to the lot to find that Collier Towing was hitching up two cars and had already taken theirs to the company's impound lot on 5th Street. They were told by a driver that they could either walk or take a cab to the lot.
"This unpleasant encounter cost us $120 in cash so we could get our vehicle back," said Daniels. "On this Sunday evening they must have towed at least a dozen cars. By the way, our dinner at the Downtown Grill cost us $100. So we had a $220 dinner in the 'lovely' Historic District."
Daniels says they had intended to stay another day or two to sight-see and shop for the holidays, but what happened at Woodard's lot caused them instead to pack up and head home to South Carolina.
"If you think this sounds like sour grapes, you are correct," wrote Daniels. "We were flim-flammed by a con artist who takes advantage of unsuspecting tourists, negating all your efforts to promote your city. We will never be back, and we will be sure to relay this experience to all of our friends, family, and acquaintances along the way."
The incident raised the ire of at least one city official.
"I know you think the signage you have is enough, but there are too many intelligent people that this happens to," Neighborhood Development chief Jim Tolbert told Woodard in an email shortly after the incident. "It is giving Cville a bad rep, and I would hope you would be ashamed to be a part of it."
Eventually, Woodard demolished his old parking booth, revamped the signage, and added lighting and a canopy above the automated payment machine, the heart of his operation. Indeed, during a recent visit to the lot, a Hook reporter couldn't help but notice the new signage, which warns that payment is required "24/7."
"The last thing I want is for anyone, especially visitors to Charlottesville, to have a bad experience," Woodard responded in an email to city officials.
Still, the system has yet to endear itself to City Hall.
"We’ve talked with Mr. Woodard, and the signage has improved," says City spokesperson Ric Barrick, "but while the system in place remains legal, it's arguably inconvenient and unduly expensive and challenging for the public."
Indeed, an incident experienced by an older couple celebrating their 56th wedding anniversary at a Sunday night concert at the Charlottesville Pavilion drives the point home.
"Since my wife and I are somewhat advanced in years (I'm 81), and have some disability," wrote Charles Churchman in an email to city officials, "we looked for a parking lot fairly close to the Pavilion."
Churchman says he saw no attendant on duty at the First & Market lot and assumed that, as was the case in their hometown of Harrisonburg, such lots are free on Sunday, especially in the evening hours. "We did not even notice a sign or the presence of an automated machine for collecting parking fees," he says.
After the concert and a hamburger dinner at Five Guys, the Churchmans returned to find that their vehicle had been towed. Fortunately, a young man they encountered helped them find out where their car was, and told them where an ATM was so they could take out the $145 in cash that Colliers Towing Service told them they needed to claim their car.
"If he hadn't helped us and walked with us the mile and a half to the impound lot, where our car, along with the rest of those hauled in for the night’s large take, was parked," said Churchman, "we would still be frantically walking the streets."
That wasn't the first time an elderly couple was stranded carless and confused. Back in August 2007, when the lot had the un-automated self-pay system, June and Paul Russell, who enjoyed June's 74th birthday celebration at Hamiltons at First & Main, allegedly forgot to put their receipt on the dashboard. It cost them $110 and a long walk to Collier's impound lot on 5th Street.
"The few blocks turned out to be nearer a mile," June Russell told the Hook. "The pains in my chest and arthritis in my hips became so severe I had to stop several times to rest." Then she added: "My birthday had turned into a nightmare."
Six months later, a couple and their 12-year old son visiting from Salem had a run-in with two Collier's tow-truck drivers, who, in the absence of an attendant on the site, basically enforce the fine system themselves, while earning 40 percent on the fees. According to the Salem couple, the drivers tried to tow their car even though they had just arrived and were trying to figure out the ticket system, an incident that was later called a "misunderstanding" by the drivers, but that the husband called "bunk."
"There's no question in my mind that this situation needs to be addressed," says Chamber of Commerce chief Tim Hulbert, who says he has grown tired of the steady stream of complaints his office has received about the lot. "Colliers has been very aggressive, and while it may not be illegal, it's poor business practice. The punishment here just doesn't fit the crime."
The Hook asked Woodard to respond to this and other complaints, and to address the issue of the punishment not fitting the crime, but he had not responded by the time of this post.
While neither Woodard or Collier's has been found to be doing anything illegal, the reports of ruined evenings and pricy punishments have convinced at least one family to steer clear of the Downtown Mall in the future.
"I was pretty darn angry," says Knight, who estimates that his Orange County group spent close to $700 at Charlottesville businesses that night. "It really left a bad taste in my mouth."