THE TOUGH CUSTOMER- Year In Review: Parking woes high on misery list

When I first moved here from Washington, DC nine years ago, I chuckled when I heard complaints about Charlottesville traffic.

Now, of course, I also complain because, well, the traffic around here sucks. This is a sure sign that some time over the past nine years, Charlottesville has become my home in spirit as well as in fact.

If there's one thing I have learned about Charlottesville in my seven-month stint as the Hook's Tough Customer, however, it's that Charlottesville's main obsession with the automobile has less to do with actual driving than with parking.

As I review my output since May, I can't help but notice that I wrote more about parking than any other single subject. And judging by the response on the Hook's online message boards, parking also seems to generate, overall, the most interest among readers. 

I wrote about local photographer Boris Starosta, who showed it's possible to fight City Hall by successfully challenging a parking ticket ("Curb that impulse:Tickets must be based on laws," August 23). Starosta was cited for parking with two wheels on his front lawn – something that perhaps seems like it ought to be illegal, but which Starosta successfully argued was not.

Proving himself to be the fly in the city's parking ointment, two weeks later I covered Starosta's struggles, both real and tongue-in-cheek, to understand why parking spaces downtown are sized arbitrarily ("Measured response: How much room does a car need?" September 6). Starosta and his tape measure identified spots ranging in length from 17.5 to 23 feet, and while this did not save him from a ticket for parking outside the lines, it does debunk city traffic planner Jeannie Alexander's claim that the size of the city's spaces is standardized. 

To understand why parking in Charlottesville generates so much interest, look no further than two columns I wrote about what happens when parking goes bad.

First, there was an ugly incident in mid-September involving Collier's Towing and Will Thompson and Michelle Porter at Oxford Hill apartments ("Towing tussle: Oxford Hill incident gets ugly," October 18). The complex's lot was overflowing the evening of the Duke/UVA game, and Collier's trucks were out in force. When Collier's put Thompson's truck on its hook, however, emotions erupted, resulting in allegations that a Collier's driver used racial epithets and in assault charges against towee Thompson.

June and Paul Russell's towing experience was not as hostile but was, perhaps, more egregious ("Lot of confusion? Towing from Woodard property raises ire," November 15). On the same day that my first Starosta column appeared in the Hook, August 23, the Russells headed downtown for lunch at Hamiltons' to celebrate June's birthday. They parked at the lot at First and Market, and although they paid the $5 fee, they neglected to leave a receipt on their windshield. Even though there was an attendant on duty at the time who had seen them pay, according to June Russell, the attendant called Collier's to have the couple's car towed for failure to display the receipt.

Having been told that Collier's lot was near downtown, the Russells figured they would save a few bucks and walk it. The uphill hike in the August heat, longer than expected, was quite difficult for the 70-something couple, although fortunately there were no lasting health repercussions.

Despite a number of calls to the lot's owner, Woodard Properties, Russell never heard back from them, so June Russell finally contacted me. When I e-mailed Keith Woodard, he responded within the same day, offering the Russells an apology and a quick refund of the cost of their tow. 

That brings me, in closing, to the non-parking story of Brenda Jones, over whose Fifeville home was threatened by several large trees belonging to her neighbor  ("Hello, hello: Tree dispute falls on deaf ears," August 9).

Jones wrote to every single elected city official about the trees, but not a single one responded or so much as acknowledged receiving her letter.

When I investigated, I learned that Jones, like so many people who got in touch with me over the past year, was not looking only for help with her problem.

She was most grateful, she said, for someone just willing to listen.