It seems like years ago (mainly because it was) that the City Paper shined a harsh light on the parking problems downtown, including the lack of space and the unfair practice of towing companies flagrantly violating city laws that limit towing charges and storage fees. Some tow companies seemed to be cleaning up their acts, but now parking gripes have headed off the peninsula to growing commercial areas in Avondale and Shem Creek.
That's not to say the horrors don't continue downtown. Ask any group of four people in a downtown bar about towing and you'll hear stories about people stranded at a closed gas station at 4 a.m. waiting for a tow-truck driver to bring them their car from parts unknown, or about a towing company that refused to accept Visa, even though the city requires them to take credit cards for no additional charge. But now downtown parking woes have spread to the 'burbs.
At the heart of every towing problem is a recognized lack of parking. The lack of spaces has come to a head in Avondale, where neighbors are starting to clash.
Beth Badhwar, owner of the Twiggs and Ivy flower shop on Magnolia Street, has welcomed new neighbors for more than seven years, but her warm feelings about a walkable neighborhood shopping district have changed as parking spaces in front of her store get gobbled up on a daily basis by lunch patrons heading to the nearby Triangle Char and Bar. For a business dependent on walk-ins, it's leaving a bad taste in Badhwar's mouth.
"I've got customers calling, saying, 'Beth, I can't find a place to park,' and they're going somewhere else," she says.
Come dinner time, neighbor John Marshall at Al di La says there's not enough parking in the area, and it's sending some cars into the nearby neighborhoods to park.
"People do find it (parking) and I have a full restaurant every night, but it's more and more challenging," he says. "It's one more hurdle a customer has to overcome to get into your business."
City planner Christopher Morgan says the city has brokered deals between businesses in the past for shared spaces and there's still some potential for that in the future, particularly for nighttime parking.
As for Badhwar, she says her lease is up in about 18 months and she'll have to decide then if it's worth it to stay.
With parking at a premium, at least one business is ready to tow. North Carolina resident Tim Pool was visiting friends in West Ashley earlier this month when his car got towed from the Children's Cancer Society Thrift Store on Savannah Highway.
As Pool tells it, he had been in both the store and the nearby bar and grill Gene's Haufbrau the day before. Gene's is allowed to use the lot after business hours. On the morning of his tow, Pool parked in the thrift store lot and went in to ask about some bar stools for sale. The sales clerk didn't know the price and asked him to come back a little later when the owner was in. Pool went down the street to Gene's to wait and came back to find his car being hauled up by a tow truck from Turky's Towing.
A thrift store employee who showed up for work after Pool arrived in the morning told him that he had seen Pool's car there the night before and assumed that it had been left overnight, though Pool says it was in a different space.
It's important to note here that there are big (really big) signs stating that the lot is for thrift store customers only, but, according to Pool, he was a customer and just down the street waiting until the owner came in. That said, his car was still towed and the thrift store has not offered to reimburse him. Owners of Gene's and the thrift store did not return calls for comment.
So the car gets hauled up onto the tow truck and Pool says he asked the driver how much it would cost to put it down. Pool says that the man told him it would cost $113.50. And that's where the trouble began. Among the city guidelines is the maximum charge of $107.50 plus a $6 a day storage fee, thus the $113.50. But, if the car's owner comes back while the car is in the process of being towed, the owner can request that the tow truck driver drop the car. At that point, the fine must be no more than half the tow rate, or $53.75.
"If he'd told me that amount, I would have given him the cash right there," Pool says. Instead, he had to watch his car get towed away.
Turky's owner, who goes by Turky Burky, says that his tow truck driver never quoted a price for dropping the car. He notes that the company rarely tows from that lot and only does so at the thrift store's request.
Turky says he'd much rather work disabled vehicle calls then towing from private lots.
"It seems like the person getting towed is never wrong," he says. "My response is always, 'Who parked the car?'"
Turky concedes that there are some tow truck drivers that give the business a bad name -- predatory towers that patrol lots and hassle owners when they arrive to get their vehicles back.
Pool says he plans to complain to the city's Livability Court.
Fortunately for Pool, his parking adventure was in the city of Charleston; parkers towed in Mt. Pleasant have no such protections.
"We just don't have that much of it (towing) here," says Capt. Stan Gragg of the Mt. Pleasant Police Department.
And, for the most part, Capt. Gragg is right. Most shopping and restaurant hubs in the town were designed with a healthy dose of parking for everyone. But it's in the exceptions where people are getting hosed.
Parking around Shem Creek once was plentiful, but plans by developer Richard Coen have lopped off most of the lot used by Red's Ice House, leaving only one row of spaces for the popular bar. Once those few spots are filled up, the spillover gets into neighboring restaurant RB's spaces, says RB's manager Kelly O'Brien.
The restaurant has contracted a towing company to sit in the parking lot and wait for Red's customers to pick the wrong lot. They also have three parking attendants to watch out for abusers.
"Nine out of 10 times, they'll tell the person to move their car," O'Brien says.
Those note warned are left to pay a $100 fee to have their car returned, says Tony Fogle, owner of Tow Jam Towing, and, to tell you the truth, he's tired of taking people's money. With most of his work coming from local dealerships, Fogle says that the late-night calls to deal with the occasional belligerent drunk is a luxury he'd rather do without.
"I've got a grandbaby to see," Fogle says. "I'd rather be doing that than babysitting a parking lot."
One woman, who asked not to be named, was towed and claimed that she was told by RB's that it might be $200 to get her car back and that the signs in the lot were so small that they could be easily missed. Fogle says that he's never charged that much and that extra charges would come only from having to use extra equipment or if the car has to be towed to a West Ashley tow yard.
At Fogle's request, RB's recently replaced the small signs threatening towing with huge signs warning that violators will be towed 24 hours a day. The first weekend with the new larger signs, Fogle towed 14 cars, nearly three times his regular catch.
"I can't explain it," he says. "I don't know if it's some incentive or what."
Fogle manages 18 lots, and he says that RB's is the only one that he's consistently towing from. He hopes that, as word gets out, people will stop parking there and heading to Red's.
"I've got better things to do," he says.
He might get his wish sooner rather than later, as RB's has bought its own tow truck to sit in the lot.
Much like STD's, the best protection from getting towed is abstinence. Much like sex, parking in a private lot is inevitable, so it's best to know your rights (or lack thereof in Mt. Pleasant) before you get pinched
Recognizing years ago that the towing industry could make a killing by extorting money from careless drivers, the city of Charleston established guidelines and mandatory charges for towing from private commercial lots.
"City Council finds in many instances when a vehicle is towed from private property without the owner's knowledge or consent, that vehicle owners are at the complete mercy of the tow truck operators and as such, are subjected to instances of price gouging and other overly stringent requirements for the return of the vehicle," the ordinance states.
The city guidelines are obviously geared to protect the poor soul that should have known better than to park in someone else's lot, but they need protection nonetheless. Under the ordinance:
• The tow company must have an annual permit.
• The tow company has to provide a detailed towing invoice.
• The property owner has to clearly post city-approved towing signs with a contact number and address where the car can be obtained.
• The tow company must contact the police within 30 minutes with information about the tow.
• The maximum charge for a tow is $107.50 plus a $6 a day storage fee.
• If the owner comes back while the car is in the process of being towed, they can request the car be dropped and only be charged a maximum of half of the tow rate, or $53.75.
• The tow company must accept credit cards at the storage facility for no additional charge. .