|A local towing company creates conflict on the streets of a city with too many vehicles and too few spaces.|
Back in early September, John Schmidt pulled into the State Parking Garage on Third Street a little after 8 p.m. on a Saturday and parked his vehicle.
When he returned, he discovered it had been hauled away by Riverside Towing.
He made his way to the company's towing yard—a dark, isolated lot surrounded by chain-link fence under the downtown bridge near the levee. Transactions here are strictly cash.
It was 8:45 p.m., but the lot didn't open until midnight. That meant he would be charged for an extra day of storage, not to mention a $45 “gate fee.”
Total cost of parking that night in downtown Baton Rouge: more than $200.
There's a war going on in certain flourishing areas of Baton Rouge, and it's driven by simple supply and demand: Too many vehicles, not enough parking.
Game day at Tiger Stadium. Saturday night in the Perkins Road overpass district. Major events in downtown Baton Rouge. LSU area apartment complexes on the weekends. Every day at North Gate. They are all battlegrounds.
Merchants associations, the Planning Commission and FuturEBR have devoted many a civilized strategy session to making peace. But on the street, it's an escalating combat zone: Unassuming, desperate or lazy motorists versus trolling tow trucks—the hired guns of fed-up property owners.
Now at the center of the controversy is Riverside Towing, adored by its clients for its aggressive enforcement strategies but reviled by those who have been on the wrong end of a tow as well as by some law-enforcement officials for its seeming propensity for pushing the rules.
LSU students have been complaining for years about the company's tactics around campus—particularly the apartment complexes and shopping districts. It is the subject of a Facebook page called “Make Riverside Towing Pay,” where more than 3,200 fans vent their frustration and swap horror stories about their pricey, unpleasant encounters with the firm that uses Darth Vader as its online persona.
But in recent weeks, Riverside Towing has captured the attention of a more influential interest group turned off by its tactics: downtown professionals and planners.
The company, which has an “F” rating from the Better Business Bureau and has been the subject of a Louisiana State Police investigation, has snagged a high-profile gig enforcing parking restrictions in the five parking garages owned by the state of Louisiana.
The state hired Republic Parking to manage the facilities, and the contract requires that the management company tow illegally parked vehicles.
After repeated complaints from businesses and individuals who pay to lease three floors of reserved parking in the 460-car garage at 201 Third Street, Republic Parking hired Riverside, and the state signed off on the arrangement.
The amount of money Baton Rouge City Court has collected from parking violations
2012 through September $174,804
SOURCE: Baton Rouge City Court
But then several weeks ago, controversy erupted over the garage, which is part of the master plan for downtown and is shared by the state and the city of Baton Rouge to provide parking for state workers during the day and downtown visitors at night and on weekends.
Riverside towed the vehicles of several guests who had parked in spaces they assumed were reserved only during normal business hours.
About a dozen of those patrons complained to the Downtown Development District, prompting Executive Director Davis Rhorer and Chief Administrative Officer William Daniel to meet last month with state officials in hopes of working out a solution.
The Third Street garage is a critical element to the downtown experience, Rhorer says, because it provides affordable, safe parking for those going to restaurants, live music venues, or events at the River Center or the Shaw Center for the Arts.
He acknowledges that the reserved spaces in the garage are clearly marked as such and should be protected against unauthorized parking. But forced towing, he says, is not the answer.
“It's just so intrusive and left a very negative feeling for people who got towed,” he says. “They had to walk over to under the bridge to pick up their car, and they had to pay cash. The price they were quoted was different from what they had to pay over there. I just don't like the idea of a tow truck inside the garage trolling for people like that when you've got a lot of spaces.
“We've worked very hard to get where we are downtown, and this leaves such a negative taste in people's mouths. I think there are other ways you can approach this.”
Billy Wilson, director of the Office of State Buildings, says the state has to protect the needs of people and businesses that pay a fee to reserve spaces in the garage.
But he acknowledges that his office is now working with the city and DDD to make reserved spaces available to the public for upcoming LSU games. He says future lease agreements might provide for business hours only, freeing up additional public parking at night and on weekends.
The number of complaints lodged with the Public Service Commission against some of Baton Rouge's larger towing companies since 2007
Riverside Towing 25
Guy's Towing Service 14
Roadrunner Towing & Recovery 7
A-1 Towing & Hauling 0
Ace Towing 0
SOURCE: Public Service Commission
Timothy Seals founded Riverside Towing in October 1999, according to records from the Secretary of State's Office. At press time, the corporation was not in good standing for failure to file required paperwork with the state of Louisiana this year.
The 50-year-old graduated from Broadmoor High School, briefly attended LSU and worked as a mechanic before opening his own towing company. He started with one truck that he himself drove; now he's about to add a fourth.
He has contracts to enforce towing in a number of Baton Rouge spots: assorted apartment complexes around LSU, North Gate, the Perkins Road overpass district, and now the state garages downtown.
Clients of Riverside are fans of the company's work. Zippy's owner Neal Hendrick contracted with Riverside Towing several months ago after customers of a neighboring business refused to respect the parking spaces reserved for his restaurant. He says Riverside actually recommended against towing.
“Riverside was very professional,” Hendrick says. “They were very nice to us, informed the business of what they were doing and requested that they put some warning signs up. We towed six cars, and the word got around. I hated to do it, but it did work, and the people at Riverside Towing were very professional. I know a lot of people don't like them, but who does like the tow company that tows your car?”
Regarding those on the other end of a tow, Seals admits he is no stranger to complaints. But he says it simply comes with the territory: No one likes to be towed, but someone has to enforce parking restrictions.
“There are people who will tell you that we're the best at what we do,” he says. “I'm actually very proud of this company. I haven't had a physical altercation in five years, probably more like seven years.”
Riverside and other Louisiana towing companies are regulated by two agencies: the Louisiana Public Service Commission and the Louisiana State Police. The PSC sets the maximum rates and fees that towing companies can charge; State Police ensures the firms are following the laws governing towing.
In the past five years, 25 complaints have been filed with the PSC against Riverside Towing—nearly twice the number made against Guy's Towing Service and more than three times that of Roadrunner Towing & Recovery.
In each case, Riverside was either cleared of wrongdoing or referred to State Police for further review.
In one instance, however, PSC Enforcement agent Jane Rhodes expressed her own frustration with the situation in her written reply to the mother of one LSU student who was towed.
“We have received numerous complaints about them,” Rhodes wrote. “I wish we could fine them for poor customer service. It seems they know the rules and regulations and delight in pushing right up to the line and stop short of an actual violation. Not all towing companies are run in this manner, however. There are some really good ones out there who value the customer.”
Better Business Bureau ratings for local tow companies
Guy's Towing Service A+
Roadrunner Towing & Recovery A+
A-1 Towing & Hauling A-
Riverside Towing F
SOURCE: Better Business Bureau
In 2009, Riverside was the subject of a State Police investigation called Operation Illegal Tow. The agency cited the firm with 81 counts—including filing false or fictitious statements, improper nonconsensual tows and improper billing invoices. The total original fine was $8,925.
According to the investigative report, troopers watched as Riverside operators towed vehicles from lots and dropped them off in the Walmart parking lot, where they were left unattended until another tow truck came to pick them up for transport to the Riverside storage yard. Such practices are illegal.
Baton Rouge Police Chief Dewayne White, who formerly headed up the State Police division that oversaw towing enforcement, says he's had concerns about Riverside for nearly a decade. He questions why the Louisiana Department of Public Safety hasn't tried to revoke the company's tow license.
“The inspection violations that have been issued to Riverside are just incredible, but to them it's just the price of doing business,” he says. “Their business practices are reprehensible. They are preying off the backs of poor students that are just trying to get an education. Some of them are going to a buddy's house or apartment to study and cram, and the next thing you know their car gets popped. I just thought that was unwarranted.”
In 2011, the PSC clamped down on Riverside's longtime practice of not providing refunds to customers who didn't have the exact cash to pay their fees. Noting that the practice constituted an illegal overcharge, the PSC mandated that carriers either make change or refund the amount owed by check within 10 days.
Seals is fighting back against those who contend he doesn't follow the rules. He has spent $4,000 per truck to install video cameras that capture every tow from multiple angles. The video footage is kept on file for years. He also stands his ground in lawsuits, preferring to spend $1,500 to win a case than spend a few hundred dollars to make it go away.
Nonetheless, the Better Business Bureau still gives Riverside Towing an “F”, given that the company has not responded to any of the complaints lodged against it. By comparison, Guy's Towing Service and Roadrunner Towing & Recovery both have an “A+”; A-1 Towing & Hauling, an “A-”.
Seals says he simply doesn't have time to respond to the bureau's complaints. “Do you see any extra time?” he asks. “I don't have the time to sit there and write a letter to the Better Business Bureau and explain. I'll tell them what I tell everyone else: 'Come on down here and look at the video.'”
The businessman isn't surprised his company is once again the subject of scrutiny since starting to tow vehicles from the Third Street garage.
“That place there I knew was going to cause me problems,” he says. “That's the who's who of Baton Rouge. I can't tell you how many times Kip Holden himself was supposedly going to be showing up at the gate. But they were stumbling a little bit, and I guess they didn't get his number right. It's always me that's done something wrong, but I'm not the one who wanted your car towed in the first place.”
A bigger problem
Ultimately, Riverside Towing is merely indicative of a much larger issue: How to best manage parking in a city with emerging hot spots in places that weren't necessarily designed with major traffic in mind.
Parking is a central issue in the city-parish master plan, FuturEBR, which recommends reducing off-street parking requirements through the Uniform Development Code, and creating a formalized shared parking program for various districts.
A recent Environmental Protection Agency audit found that Baton Rouge's requirements for parking in many cases exceeded industry standards as well as those of peer communities.
The number of parking citations issued in Baton Rouge in the past five years
2007 – 37,334
2008 – 29,005
2009 – 23,452
2010 – 23,994
2011 – 24,774
SOURCE: Baton Rouge City Court
Using models from cities of similar size that would reduce the minimum parking requirements for individual locations, and working with merchant associations and clustered businesses to create shared parking areas could reduce the need for towing enforcement, the study notes.
Ryan Holcomb, planning project coordinator for the city-parish Planning Commission, says the agency recognizes the parking problems in emerging hot spots and is working toward incorporating the study's recommendations.
Rachel DiResto, executive vice president of the Center for Planning Excellence, says it's also going to take a cultural shift—specifically, residents being willing to pay for parking, park a little farther away and walk to their destination, or use public transit.
“We have to find other ways to get where we're going without everyone driving in their individual cars,” she says. “We can't always expect to park at the front door.”
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