THE TOUGH CUSTOMER- Rashomon redux? Parking lot conflict heats up
Parking a car is not, as the saying goes, rocket science.
Parking in the lot at First and Market in downtown Charlottesville, however, sometimes seems like it would challenge the brainiest NASA employee.
You may recall this lot as the one where last August a septuagenarian couple, June and Paul Russell, failed to display a receipt on their dashboard, allegedly causing the very same attendant who had collected their parking fee to also call Collier's Towing to have their car towed ["Lot of confusion? Towing from Woodard property raises ire," November 15]. The incident ruined a birthday celebration and resulted in an elderly couple traipsing up and down the hills of downtown in search of their car.
A more recent incident doesn't involve an elderly couple, but it does suggests that confusion at the lot may not be unusual.
On Saturday, February 2, Ed Blankenship, his wife, Terri, and their 12-year-old son came to Charlottesville from their home in Salem to shop and, more specifically, to try out the fondue at the Melting Pot restaurant just off the Downtown Mall. After some time at Barracks Road Shopping Center, they drove down to the Mall around 5:30pm.
While driving around looking for parking, Blankenship passed up the Market Street Parking Garage, but he eventually stumbled upon the asphalt lot on First Street.
According to Blankenship, he parked his SUV, and the trio proceeded to the self-pay kiosk. While trying to figure out the pay system, he noticed a Collier's driver sniffing around his vehicle and writing something down. Concerned that the fellow was getting ready to tow the car, Blankenship sent his son over to explain the family had just arrived at the lot and was in the process of paying.
The Blankenships say that the driver told their son that their car had been in the lot for two hours and was going to be towed away. Blankenship went over to argue.
Blankenship says things got heated, mostly, actually, on his part. He told me he was not going to allow his car to be towed.
A crowd gathered. Another Collier's driver, who I have since learned is named Dale, showed up and also insisted they would tow the car.
Blankenship said he was calling the cops. An officer arrived, at which point, Blankenship says, the second Collier's driver told the officer it was all a big mistake and they weren't going to tow Blankenship's car at all.
The Blankenships claim that explanation was bunk, and, needless to say, their evening was ruined.
But Dale expressly told me it was all a "big misunderstanding." He explained that when Blankenship's son came over to speak to the first driver, the driver thought the lad was referring to a small Honda parked nearby, not the huge SUV that just arrived.
So, what actually transpired in the parking lot that night– attempted tow or big misunderstanding?
Maybe famed director Akira Kurosawa would find meaning in that question of conflicting accounts, but untangling the two tales may be beside the point.
The problem is the parking lot, or more accurately, the combination of the lack of an on-site attendant, a paper-driven self-pay system, a financial incentive for Collier's drivers to tow as many cars as possible (the owner tells me that drivers get 40 percent of the fees), and an increasing shortage of downtown parking.
Back when I first wrote about this lot last November, city spokesman Ric Barrick told me that the City periodically receives complaints, but he added that the lot's owner, Keith Woodard, had been responsive to the City's request to improve the signage.
Last week, Woodard e-mailed me to say he was unaware of the current situation, and while he was leaving town, was willing to get in touch with Blankenship upon his return to smooth over any lingering bad feelings.
I have no reason to doubt Woodard's gesture, and I don't question his right to operate his business and his property as he sees fit. Towing, however, is a flash point for tempers ["Towing tussle: Oxford Hill incident gets ugly, October 18, 2007], and unless something changes, I fear it is just a matter of time before the consequences of conflict at this lot will be more serious than a ruined meal.
Got a consumer situation? Call the Hook newsroom at 434-295-8700x405 or e-mail the Tough Customer directly.