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Price Gouging for Detroit Parking

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This is rediculous, especially given the sheer number of parking garages & surface lots in downtown Detroit.

PARKING IN DOWNTOWN DETROIT: Battle heats up over prices at lots

It's illegal to hike fee for an event; owners say the law is vague

October 20, 2003



Chris McLeod said he knew something was fishy Sunday when he pulled into a parking lot downtown and got the runaround about how much it would cost to park.

"I clearly saw that the sign said $20 to park, but the guy told me the price was $30," the Clinton Township resident said as he and three passengers in his SUV backed out of the lot to head elsewhere. "When I pointed out to him that the sign had the $20 price, he told me I didn't see the sign right."

Situations like McLeod's are what many people want to prevent.

An intense battle is revving up between downtown Detroit parking lot owners and consumer advocates, who say that publicly and privately owned lots are routinely breaking the law by gouging customers during special events.

According to the city's law, a rate increase for special events must be reported to the Department of Consumer Affairs 30 days before the rate goes into effect. And the higher price must remain for 60 days after the event.

For example, a lot that charges $50 on Sunday must charge the same amount every Sunday for 60 days, said retired Detroit Councilman Clyde Cleveland, who has been a vocal critic of the parking rate hikes. But some lot owners like Jim Forbes, manager and co-owner of the GEM parking structure, say language in the ordinance lets them offer a discount.

Lots near Ford Field and Comerica Park -- which charge $5 to $10 during the week -- are hitting up customers for as much as $50 for events like Lions and Tigers games, the recent Eminem concert and the Labor Day Football Classic.

The higher prices could deter families from coming downtown at a time when city leaders say luring their business is crucial.

On Sunday morning, before the Lions played the Dallas Cowboys, a Free Press visit to more than a dozen downtown lots found that all charged higher prices than they did during the week. Some had weekend rates covered with "game day" and "Lions game" placards.

Listed prices were as much as 10 times higher than normal. Some lots had no price posted at all. Parking areas closest to the stadium had the biggest difference between weekday and Sunday rates.

Even at lots far from the stadium area, customers felt the pinch.

Lot owners said they are doing nothing wrong and that such price hikes are within the bounds of the law, which they said is vague and full of loopholes.

"The city ordinance totally contradicts itself," said Forbes, whose structure is on Brush across from Ford Field. "We are not breaking the law."

Consumer advocates disagree.

"The ordinance is very clear -- there is no room for misunderstanding or misinterpretation," said Detroit Councilwoman JoAnn Watson. "It's as clear as those $40 and $50 signs that they are using to cover up the $5 rates at their lots."

Cleveland, the former Detroit councilman, accused owners of ignoring the law. On Sunday, he stood near a lot in the 400 block of Gratiot to make his point.

"This lot is charging $50 today because of the Lions game and if you come back next week when there is no game, the price will be back down to $5 and $10," he said. "That's a clear violation of the law. That high $50 rate has to be in effect even on a normal Sunday, and it is not."

With the two sides basing their arguments on different parts of the city ordinance, it could take months of legal action, a rewording of the 14-page ordinance or more public input before the issue is settled.

Cleveland is to address the City Council today to discuss alleged parking gouging. Watson said she will request that a public hearing to discuss the issue be held soon.

Meanwhile, those who visit downtown Detroit for special events will continue to see steep prices.

"$50 for parking? You can get a downtown hotel room for that," said Ann Arbor resident Jerry Jackson, who said he parked for $15. "What are they doing? It's not the Super Bowl yet."

Convenience and being near Ford Field are what drew Scott and Starla Marazita of Troy to a lot on Gratiot across from the 36th District Court.

The couple paid the $50 but were still grousing about it as they walked toward the stadium.

"We're not from here, and we really didn't know of any other place to park," Scott Marazita said. "I guess we should have looked a little longer. In July, we were here for a Tigers game and parked in the exact same lot for $15."

If a lot like the one the Marazitas parked in Sunday is caught breaking the law, the city can ticket the owner. Such a ticket carries penalties of as much as $400.

City Councilman Alonzo Bates and others said that the gouging and other violations go unpunished because the city's enforcement and oversight is shoddy, at best.

"Enforcement is nonexistent," Cleveland said.

Al Fields, the city's director of consumer affairs, said his staff of four investigators is active, aggressive and visible.

In the last week, he said his staff ticketed four downtown lots for violations. Fields said his staff would be more effective if the law was stronger.

The ordinance now requires each lot to list prices in 6-inch letters so customers will know exactly what they have to pay on any given day. Fields said that policy is unreasonable. Each lot is required to submit dozens of rates to his office. Fields said listing them on a sign would call for overly large signs on each lot. Fields said the sign rules aren't enforced because "we don't want our inspectors out there trying to enforce an ordinance that is impossible for the lots to abide by," he said.

Still, consumer advocates said that much of the law is legally on point to address price gouging and that better enforcement against law-breaking lot owners is needed.

"The wording of the law and the spirit of the law is to protect patrons from this exploitive price gouging from happening," Watson said.

"It is outrageous. The exorbitant rates are like hitting consumers with a sledgehammer. It's criminal."

Contact ERIK LORDS at 313-222-6678 or [email protected]

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