Randy Katz is a stand-up guy. An emergency room doc at Memorial Regional Hospital in Hollywood, he recently raised $35,000 for a buddy, Jeff Fogel, who has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) — Lou Gehrig's disease. The money helped Fogel buy a high-tech wheelchair to deal with the malady that is stealing his ability to move even a finger.
This past May 10, Katz woke up before dawn with his sons, 10-year-old Jaden and 9-year-old Gabe, to run in the ALS Recovery Fund 5K/10K race in Coconut Grove. Though Katz contributed $200 to participate — all to help ALS victims — he was running a little late for the 7:30 a.m. start. So after cops directed him to a lot on the corner of Mary Street and Tigertail Avenue, the trio jumped out of the car and hoofed it down to the race start on South Bayshore Drive.
"There was no attendant, and I knew I might get a ticket," he says. "But I never expected what came next."
After jogging five kilometers in the steamy subtropical heat, Katz and sons returned to find a bright-yellow boot locked onto a front wheel. Indeed, 27 cars in the lot had been immobilized. All of the drivers had run or walked the race. Most had contributed hundreds of dollars. All had been confused by signs that were at best unclear — and all had to pay $89 to get their wheels back.
"It was a way to make money off people who were doing right," Katz says. "There was no warning or sign. It was entrapment."
After Premier Booting Services collected more than $2,300 from those in the lot, I wrote a blog post chastising those responsible. There was a Coconut Grove Bank sign at one entrance, and the real estate is owned by two of Miami's biggest developers -- the Terra Group and the Related Group. "Shame on you" was the post's first line.
Soon, a bank president, those in charge of the lot, the booting company, and dozens of runners would work themselves into a lather. Paradise Parking, the concessionaire, would promise to return the money paid by the parkers and to suspend booting in the lot. And both Paradise and Terra would vow to contribute to ALS research.
But a week after the event, the president of the booting company knew nothing of a suspension. Neither Paradise nor Terra had come up with an amount to give. And two of the three people I'd interviewed that morning in the Grove had yet to receive a refund or an apology.
"This is wrong," said Alexandra Castilla, a young woman who was booted after walking several miles. "It's evil."
For more than a decade, the race has collected tens of thousands of dollars to help people with ALS. It annually attracts hundreds of runners and walkers, who pay in advance, start at Miami City Hall, and traverse either five or ten kilometers along the bay before returning for an awards ceremony and a drink of cold water in the city hall parking lot.
And it's all over before many of us even wake up.
This is nevertheless a major undertaking. Scores of volunteers provide drinks, set up tents, and organize the course. Because streets are closed to traffic, 60 police officers, including three sergeants and a lieutenant, are required.
"We are a grassroots organization run entirely by volunteers," says Kevin Packman, an attorney who organizes the event. "Therefore, our supporters are precious to us... The problems never happened before, thankfully."
Most race attendees park around city hall. But the event has grown extraordinarily in recent years -- and some overflow must now fend for itself in the Grove. The police, in an effort to help, direct drivers to nearby lots. One of those was the lot next to Coconut Grove Bank.
"As a courtesy, we direct people where to park," Miami Police Commander Manuel Morales says. "But once they are there, it is up to the lot and motorists themselves."
Eduardo Perdomo, a hospice executive, contributed $1,200 that day. He drove past the Coconut Grove Bank sign and another at the parking lot's entrance, which he says is "really tricky... It says you have to pay the cashier, but there was no one there."
While his wife, Nicole Rosenbaum, ran the 10K, he walked with his kids — ages 4, 3, and 1 — in strollers. After finishing, he returned to find his car booted. The 1-year-old was hungry and sobbing, he says, but it took the man from Premier Booting more than an hour and a half to get the boot off. "At this point, I don't care about the money or even getting an apology," Perdomo says. "I just want everyone to know what they did. They are definitely making money off it."
I attended that Saturday because my son Jacob was competing. (He came in second in the 5K.) When I returned to my car, which wasn't booted, I interviewed a few people and then typed a blog post that was published on the Miami New Times website a few hours after the race.
Soon, Rick Kuci, president of Coconut Grove Bank, read it and was fuming. The bank, he explained in an email, does have a sign at the entrance, but last year it sold the property to a partnership of Terra Group and Related Group, two of the biggest developers in South Florida, for $55 million.
Kuci first called Brian Pearl, a director of Terra Group, to find out what happened. Then he sent me an email protesting my naming his company.
"There is a monument sign so that people know where the bank is and our name on the awning says where the bank is, but we own none of the real estate," Kuci said. "We just wanted accurate reporting."
After speaking with Kuci, I changed the headline on the post to refer to Related Group
and Terra Group. A few minutes later, a representative of the developers, who declined to give his name, called to protest that "the companies don't manage the property. That's someone else."
I changed the headline again and asked if the companies planned to contribute to ALS research -- just to make up for the inconvenience. "I will definitely recommend that," the unnamed representative said.
Later in the day, I spoke with Andrew Beachler, president of Premier Booting. "I am going to refund everyone who was booted out there," he said. "We will make sure that everyone gets their money back."
Daniel Radrizzani, a vice president of Paradise Parking, the vendor that controls the lot, said his company wasn't informed of the race. "We don't operate like this. I found out after the fact," he said and then added that the company would make a donation to ALS research. "The amount I am not sure, but a donation will be made."
Finally, I reached Terra's Brian Pearl. "It is clear that the policies and procedures should be revamped so this is not repeated in the future," he said. "There will be a contribution, though [we] typically don't disclose the amount."
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It all seemed to be good news until later in the week. Though the lot's owners called for a suspension of booting, Premier Booting's Beachler said he hadn't heard anything about it. He explained there had simply been bad communication that morning — one driver was finishing work just as another was starting. But he acknowledged it was a lot of booting. He had never before seen 27 cars immobilized in one lot.
"Obviously, there was no wrongdoing," he said. "We were unaware of the event. I am going to be part of it next year and am going to give some money. It is a great cause."
But neither Perdomo nor Katz had received the promised refund when we spoke at the end of last week. Katz, for one, is skeptical it will ever come. "They are just telling you that [they will refund and contribute] to pacify the public," he said.