Theft at Grand Central as Miami Downtown Parking Lot Wars Hit a New Low

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

So when Brad Knoefler opened a new night club on NE 7th street called Grand Central, he decided to offer free parking on 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 the other lot impresarios around him, who say it's siphoning away paying customers. One May night, one of those owners, Andrew Mirmelli, was so upset, he drove by the Grand Central, took the 'free parking' sign, and fled "in an unknown direction," according to a Miami police report.

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

In a 2009 report, the city found 14 percent of the 70 parking facilities audited - there are nearly 400 over all - didn't keep proper financial records, and owe approximately $1.2 million in city fees.

Much of that money is still outstanding, so on June 25, Miami police launched a zero-tolerance policy to arrest and close all those owners who don't have parking permits, or proper receipts. It's not clear yet how many will be shut down by the new policy.

Lot operators have to pay a 15 percent surcharge on each spot they sell. But since, as Mirmelli says, operators are free to charge "whatever the market dictates," not keeping up with receipts and records means there is a lot of unaccounted money beyond those millions in city fees.

Mirmelli said in an interview he didn't know it was Knoefler's sign when he took it. But he thinks the club owner is just biding his time until he can charge for parking. "He wants to sell parking in his lot and turn a profit, and that's not going to fly," Mirmelli says. He has since returned the $100 sign, according to Miami police.

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 spits out.

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Erik Maza