There's a new twist to the ol' South Beach towing racket. At 17th Street and Lennox Avenue, just north of Lincoln Road, there's a parking lot that looks identical to scores of other nearby city-run lots. To pay, there's an electronic meter, just like all the city meters scattered around.
But here's the catch: The lot is privately owned, and if you pay in a nearby city meter instead of the one machine in the lot, Tremont Towing trucks are ready to pounce.
The setup has led to scores of complaints and action by the city, which recently forced the owners to post more visible signs. "We had a rash of folks coming in [to complain]," Miami Beach Parking Director Saul Frances says.
The changes haven't been enough, though, critics say. Take the case of Kris Conesa, a freelance journalist (and, full disclosure, former New Times staffer). Just before 3:30 p.m. on a Saturday during the height of Miami Music Week, Conesa eased his black Mercedes-Benz CLK 350 into the lot. Noticing a line of people waiting to pay at the lot's only meter, Conesa skipped across the street and paid at another machine.
He placed his ticket, which would expire at 5:13 p.m., on the dashboard and headed to Dylan's Candy Bar on Lincoln Road, where he and his girlfriend shared Slush Puppies. When he returned, his ride was gone. Tremont had towed the Benz less than an hour after he parked it and charged him $241 to get it back. Conesa says the lot's two signs are barely visible.
"These charlatans have a machine that looks exactly like the city's meters just across the way," Conesa says. "They could have an attendant there to differentiate the two, but instead choose to perpetrate as a public lot in an effort to confuse motorists and line their pockets."
Lot owners Andrew Mirmelli and Solomon Mayberg did not respond to two messages left on their cell phones seeking comment. But a Tremont manager, who identified himself only as Chris, says it is Conesa's fault for not reading the lot's signs more carefully. "That's what the signs are there for," he adds, "to point people to the right meter."
Banana Republican checked out the lot, and it's easy to overlook the signs. One is a green metal square nailed to a tree trunk. The other is white with busy red type that's obscured when there's a crowd waiting to pay the meter.
Frances had Tremont change the signage just two weeks ago to make the type more legible, and says he's had only two complaints since then. He says he's powerless to do more to help parkers.
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"It's a free-enterprise issue," he explains. "They don't have to honor parking tickets purchased from a city-operated meter. We feel badly about it."
Free enterprise or not, Conesa complains the city is helping the tow firm entrap drivers. "They have gone out of their way to fool unwitting drivers to park their cars there," he grouses. "It is an outright scam."
Follow Francisco Alvarado on Twitter: @thefrankness.