A wild parking market is costing the City of Miami big bucks

Parking downtown has always been a Gaza-like free-for-all. With hobos charging to "watch" cars, and lots that gouge drivers depending on which team the Heat is playing, a night of debauchery and drinking can set you back 20 bucks before you even set foot inside a bar.

So when Brad Knoefler opened a new nightclub on NE Seventh Street called Grand Central, he decided to offer free parking in the empty, dusty lot across the street.

"Lots here charge whatever, and they're not safe or have proper lighting and fencing," Knoefler says. "We wanted a secure lot for our customers."

But the free parking has upset other lot impresarios, who say it's siphoning away paying customers. This past May, one of those owners, Andrew Mirmelli, was so upset he drove by Grand Central, took the "Free Parking" sign, and fled "in an unknown direction," according to a police report.

The incident is just the latest sign of the Wild West that is the lucrative downtown parking racket. Except lot owners aren't simply trying to ice out competitors; they're also stiffing the city of millions of dollars.

According to a 2009 report, city officials found that ten of the 70 parking facilities audited — there are nearly 400 in all — didn't keep proper financial records and, as a result, owed some $1.2 million in city fees.

Much of that money is still outstanding, so on the last Friday in June, Miami Police launched a zero-tolerance policy to arrest and shut down the lots that don't have parking permits or proper receipts.

Mirmelli, whose brother's company owns nine of the nonpaying lots, has been paying his dues, but when you have a free market with wildly fluctuating prices, it's hard to establish what that 15 percent surcharge on each occupied spot should be.

Mirmelli has since returned the $100 sign to Knoefler, but he thinks the club owner is just biding his time until he can charge for parking, going into direct competition with the two brothers.

Meanwhile, Knoefler wants to stay out of it. The lanky motor mouth, perpetually on Red Bull, says he just wants a friendlier downtown.

"The whole purpose of the lot was to create an incentive for people to come into the neighborhood," he says.