THE TOUGH CUSTOMER- Troubled lot: Woodard's parking system blasted again
I received two perplexing letters recently concerning one of the oft-visited topics of this column: the parking lot at First and Market in Downtown Charlottesville.
Sandra Terry of Charlottesville wrote that on June 3 when she and her husband, who recently had knee surgery, attended a show at the Paramount Theater, it was "pouring down rain. ... It was getting dark and hard to see, and since I have never parked at the First & Market Parking Lot before and did not have the benefit of daylight, I only saw the sign which read ‘$5 parking for up to three hours' and was happy that it was next to the Paramount– so I parked there."
She claims she thought she could pay upon exiting.
What happened next should shock no one: Terry's car was towed, and instead of dessert at a downtown establishment, an unpleasant trip to Collier's Towing and a $120 payment in cash (of which Collier's says $95 is for the tow and $25 for parking that goes to the lot's owner) closed out the Terrys' evening.
Last December, Chris Sherwood and his wife pulled into the lot intending to pay for a spot, but from inside their car saw what appeared to be a temporary sign on the booth stating that an attendant was not on duty. Figuring they would pay later, when the attendant returned, Sherwood never discovered the lot's self-pay system.
That, too, turned into a tow, a trip to Colliers, and $120 out of pocket.
Sherwood is seeking a partial refund from Collier's for what he believes is an excessive towing and parking fee, and a full refund from lot owner Keith Woodard for allegedly condoning what Sherwood feels are less than savory business practices that resulted in his tow.
These letters were perplexing because, as Sherwood expressed it in his missive to me, "I don't believe they [Collier's and Woodard] are breaking the law; however, I do believe that their actions give many individuals a horrible portrayal of Charlottesville and the Downtown Mall area."
When I first wrote about this issue last November ["Lot of confusion? Towing from Woodard property raises ire," November 15, 2007], Ric Barrick, director of communications for Charlottesville, told me that the city had received a number of complaints regarding the lot's allegedly confusing self-pay system, but also that the lot's owner, Woodard Properties, was acting legally, and had cooperated with the city in improving signage to address the complaints.
Still, my own reconnaissance mission revealed that the lot's signage is small enough that it could be difficult to notice, especially for someone unfamiliar with the lot. Throw in nighttime, inclement weather, the pressure of curtain time amid the fog of frustration that can accompany finding parking downtown, and conditions are ripe for an honest mistake.
That said, there are also at least two signs in the lot stating, "Towing is Enforced" that are large enough to see from inside a vehicle. While these signs may deter scofflaws, they are little help to people like Terry and Sherwood.
But there is the potential for a larger problem at the lot.
Last winter, I wrote about a February incident in which Collier's alleged attempt to tow a car while its owner endeavored to figure out the self-pay system led to a yelling match that required the police to be called ["Rashomon redux? Parking lot conflict heats up," March 6, 2008].
Lot owner Keith Woodard has been responsive concerning this and other incidents at the lot when I have contacted him. He has explained that the amount of business at the lot does not justify a full-time employee, and the self-pay system, enforced by towing, was the best he could come up with to prevent people from parking for free.
And while it may be easy to paint Collier's Towing as the heavy, there is no conclusive evidence that the firm has acted illegally in either removing cars from the lot or in their charges (although that enhanced $25 parking fee deserves further investigation).
But as downtown becomes more crowded and parking becomes more scarce, perhaps it is time that Mr. Woodard take another look at his operation, before the confusion and unhappiness the current system seems to generate, despite his good faith efforts, result in something besides wallets and pride getting hurt.
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