Chantall Sheaffer and her husband went out to dinner in Plaza Midwood one recent Friday evening and decided to park in a lot they'd been using for years. Unbeknownst to them, the owner of the lot had recently hired Randy McElwain's towing company, Freedom Towing, to enforce a no-parking-after-hours rule after the owner started showing up to work only to find cigarette butts and beer cans strewn across the front of his property. The Sheaffers returned to their car to find a boot on one of its tires.
Parking in some of Charlotte's most popular neighborhoods feels like fighting for space in a bumper car arena. When you do luck out and find a spot, there's an increasing chance you'll return after your night out to a booted tire or an empty space, your car in a tow lot somewhere far away.
The problem isn't that Charlotte is running out of parking spots, though it certainly feels that way. It's that the new developments popping up in places like Plaza Midwood, NoDa, South End and Montford are relying on the surrounding lots and neighborhoods to supply parking for most of their patrons.
"It's a huge problem ... and it's gonna get a lot worse," McElwain says.
Identifying the source of the problem is nearly impossible, and everyone — the motorist, the business, even the towing company — can be a victim.
Parking lots are plentiful in the aforementioned neighborhoods, says Brad Richardson, Charlotte's economic development manager. Many are just privately owned. He says the city tries to work with the owners of the lots to share their spaces with the patrons of other business, or to open their lots after hours. But even he acknowledges the risks businesses take when they agree to a compromise. Every space lost to the customers of another business, even for a few minutes, is money lost, and opening lots after business hours raises liability issues (and increases litter).
Businesses hire companies like McElwain's to enforce their lots' rules, but it's McElwain who hears from drivers who are unhappy with the policies. Still, it's hard to empathize with a tower, especially considering the city's tumultuous history with the more aggressive companies.
About three years ago, customers of a Starbucks on East Boulevard started to complain about being constantly towed or booted in the coffee shop's parking lot, which had unclear signage. The city changed its towing ordinance, requiring clearer signs and, to minimize scams by unauthorized towers, forcing such companies to accept credit cards. But the biggest change has created a slew of new complaints, says Better Business Bureau spokeswoman Janet Hart. As part of the new ordinance, if a driver catches his or her car mid-tow, the tower must unhook the vehicle. Many companies have found a loophole: using more boots, which take only seconds to fit to a tire. It seems shady and unfair, but McElwain says business owners dictate the rules.
He blames parking issues on the city, saying not enough spots are required of new businesses.
He mentions a building in Dilworth on East Boulevard. Formerly known as Longboards, it shared a handful of parking spots with neighboring stores.
"I know the city wants the tax revenue and all that [from new businesses], but they're putting a big burden ... on neighbors," McElwain says.
But who wants a city full of concrete parking decks?
Richardson says he thinks more public transportation, such as the Gold Line, will minimize parking issues. That's the long-term solution he offers. The short-term solution is convincing businesses to either open their lots after hours and charge for parking or for the city to develop empty space into public parking, such as the lot on Thomas Street in Plaza Midwood.
Hart, of the Better Business Bureau, offers a few suggestions for when you are booted or towed. First, make sure whoever booted your car accepts credit cards; scammers usually don't. Make sure a sign with clear rules is posted somewhere visible in the lot and has the phone number of the towing company. Verify the booter works for the company by calling the number on the sign — the new towing ordinance requires someone be on the receiving end 24 hours a day. If something doesn't seem right, call the police.
Motorists can take comfort knowing even towers are scammed. McElwain says another towing company recently started towing cars out of a parking lot Freedom was under contract to cover.
"I told them to unhook all the cars or I'd call the police," says McElwain, who worked with the city during many of the ordinance rewrites.
And no one is immune to a $50 booting fee.
Hart recalls an incident last year in which the media was covering booting and towing issues that had again come up in Elizabeth and Dilworth. "Two different TV stations pulled into the lot to film," she says. "They got booted."