An all-caps message went up this week on a large, temporary sign hung outside The Peculiar Rabbit and Smooth Monkey in Plaza Midwood:
“THE BULLIES ACROSS THE STREET ARE BOOTING YOUR CARS. DON’T PARK THERE!”
Both businesses have some dedicated parking for customers and there’s limited on-street parking nearby, but many people instead decide to use a large shopping center parking lot across the street, near other eateries and a CVS on Central Avenue.
The problem? It’s a private lot which, until recently, only had small signs warning drivers they could be towed or booted.
If a car is booted, it’s a $100 cash or $125 credit/debit card charge to have the boot removed. A “boot” or clamp is a device that locks on to a car’s wheel, leaving the vehicle immobile until unlocked by the person who booted it.
It’s not the only lot in Plaza Midwood where owners have recently stepped up “customers only” parking enforcement. In some cases, spots are metered or limited to two hours. In other cases, parkers must pay before leaving the lot, either through an app or a cash box, with parking lot attendees enforcing the rules.
The area is booming with development, new bars and new restaurants, causing frequent congestion and parking woes, especially at night and on weekends.
In response, businesses have posted signs warning their patrons of potential tickets or wheel boots.
Central Avenue restaurants YAFO Kitchen and Midwood Smokehouse, which are owned by the same person, posted signs recently riffing on the booting practices across the street at Central Square.
“We tried to bribe them with ribs, but it didn’t work,” the Midwood Smokehouse sign reads. The YAFO Kitchen sign replaces “ribs” with “hummus.”
The signs add levity to a frustrating situation for drivers, many of whom have filed complaints with the Better Business Bureau over enforcement practices in Plaza Midwood.
Charlotte lawyer Tim Pavone, who practices criminal defense and traffic ticket cases, says private parking lot owners have the ultimate legal leeway when enforcing use of their property.
“It wouldn’t be any different than someone parking on your driveway,” he said. “Your property, your rules.”
The owner of Central Square, Cole Properties and Investments of Charlotte, did not respond to an interview request from the Observer this week. Cole Properties and Investments owns the commercial buildings and parking lot where The Roasting Company, Bistro La Bon, Five Guys and other local businesses are located, and the company contracts with another business to patrol parking.
The lot is situated off Central Avenue, near the railroad crossing and Pecan Avenue.
‘Less than 5 minutes’
Charlotte resident Jesse Clements said he was booted in the parking lot on a Sunday afternoon in July — even though he and his wife were there to eat at a Central Square restaurant and Central Square patrons are authorized to use the lot.
They ran into trouble — $125-worth of trouble — because they first wandered across the street, off property, to peek into a new business’s windows.
“We were gone less than five minutes,” Clements said.
Then, the couple crossed the street again to where their car was parked and spent about an hour eating lunch at The Roasting Company.
Afterward, they found a boot on their tire. Clements said he thought it was a mistake. They showed their meal receipt to a towing company employee, who called his boss.
“His supervisor said ‘No, he left. That’s an automatic fine,’” Clements recalled. “As soon as you step foot off the property you’re booted.”
Clements said a manager at The Roasting Company told him the restaurant was aware of booting in the lot and could vouch that Clements and his wife ate there for lunch. But Clements said there was nothing the restaurant could do about the boot.
Clements paid $125 by credit card to have the boot removed. He says he thought about calling Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police.
But city law limits what police officers can do in disputes over parking tickets from private companies on private property.
Later, Clements filed a Better Business Bureau complaint on WheelBlockers, the company Cole Properties contracts with for parking lot enforcement.
‘No public parking’
The BBB has received over 40 complaints regarding WheelBlockers’ towing practices, many of which say the incident took place in Plaza Midwood. In almost all cases, WheelBlockers responded to BBB complaints, saying vehicles had been properly booted or towed.
Many people who complained claimed they were patrons of Central Square or, like Clements, said they only stepped off the property briefly before returning to find their car booted. Still some admitted guilt for violating parking rules.
The Observer called WheelBlockers this week. A person who would only identify himself by first name said no manager or owner was available for comment.
On the BBB website, WheelBlockers directly responds to complaints, many times emphasizing their company doesn’t make the parking rules but merely enforces them.
“Any lot that we service is private property and not a public parking lot ... Once you leave the property you are subject to being booted or towed,” the company wrote in response to one complaint from June.
In another, from May, WheelBlockers wrote to a person whose car was booted: “We apologize that your sense of entitlement resulted in your vehicle being booted.”
Central Square parking lot recently put up a new “No Public Parking” sign that’s much larger and more visible from the road than older parking enforcement signs.
The larger sign could cut down on future parking violations.
And it’s an example of how rapid development strains neighborhoods, says Sam Spencer, chair of the zoning committee for the Charlotte Planning Commission.
“The neighborhood has outgrown outdated uses like strip malls with seas of parking,” Spencer said. “It’s clear the [lot] across the street is not adapting to change.”
Still, he says, “It’s a shame that the first message people are going to get when they visit Plaza Midwood is an unwelcoming one.”