THE TOUGH CUSTOMER- Downtown dilemma: What Woodard can do about towing

The chronic problems with allegedly confusing self-pay instructions at the parking lot at First and Market Streets downtown, which I wrote about July 31 ["Troubled lot: Woodard's parking system blasted again"], are both significant and not easily solved.

As I noted, on the one hand, neither the lot's owner, Keith Woodard of Woodard Properties, nor the towing company, Collier's Towing, are acting illegally. But at the same time the City has apparently continued to receive complaints about the lot from people who feel they were unfairly towed, and I have received a steady stream of correspondence to that effect as well.

Woodard has previously explained that there is not enough business at the lot to justify the cost of a full-time attendant, which would probably resolve the problem. The threat and follow-through of towing, Woodard maintains, are necessary to enforce the rules.

But as the recent column showed, this one-size-fits-all penalty does not differentiate between honest people who fail to understand the lot's instructions and freeloaders who are intentionally breaking the rules.  

Collier's owner, Glenda Jones, told me that on average her drivers remove three to five cars from the lot per week, but she also said that when there are events downtown, which is almost every week, the company might tow as many as 10 cars per week.

Collier's charges $120 per tow, she says, $95 of which is a towing fee and $25 of which is a parking fee paid to Keith Woodard, the lot's owner. The self-pay fee at the lot is $5.

Do the math, and all those tows cost downtown visitors an extra $50K-plus per year. And that doesn't include the lost business from ticked-off people who never come back to downtown, or who stay away in the first place after hearing horror stories of towed cars.

Does this make sense for the city or its downtown merchants?

Woodard can make an aggrieved customer financially whole by cutting a check, but bad memories are not so easily erased. All too often I hear from people for whom a special event– a show at the Paramount, a 75th birthday lunch, or a visit from out-of-town to a favorite restaurant– is ruined, not because they're trying to park free, but because, they say, they made an honest mistake.

Finally, there's a bigger problem lurking here. The combination of more crowds downtown, less parking, a confusing pay system, an incentive for aggressive towing (Collier's drivers are paid $40 for every car they tow), and wallet-busting towing fees have the makings of a more serious conflagration, one that's sure to happen eventually.  

I've already written about one situation where an alleged attempt to tow a car while its owner tried to figure out the lot's self-pay system– an allegation dismissed by Collier's as "a big misunderstanding"– required the police to intervene to calm tempers ["Rashomon redux? Parking lot conflict heats up," March 6].

Woodard is not blind to this issue. "We don't like to tow," he says. "I wish we didn't need to. I'm open to any suggestions you have."

Okay, since you asked, here are three suggestions from your humble columnist:

• Immobilize scofflaws' cars at the lot with a boot, which would still be a deterrent, but could cut the prohibitive towing fee and save people the difficult, three-quarter-mile trek to Collier's.

• Add large, well-lit, signs at the lot's entrance, easily visible at night from inside an automobile, clearly stating, "This is a self-pay lot. Pay in advance at the booth or your car WILL BE TOWED - $120 fee!" Based on my mail, such signs would help at least some well-intentioned, if erring drivers

• Hire a lot attendant at hours when there's an event downtown and errors are more frequent.

As for that last suggestion, perhaps this isn't Woodard's problem to solve alone. It is his property, but his policies affect the City and all downtown businesses. 

Ric Barrick, Charlottesville's director of communications, did not return my phone calls for this article, but I'm hopeful Woodard and the City can get together. The parking spaces at Woodard's lot are helpful for downtown, but it's not in anyone's interest– except possibly Collier's Towing– for the situation to continue as it is.

Got a consumer situation? Call the Hook newsroom at 434-295-8700x405 or e-mail the Tough Customer directly.