ST. PETERSBURG — Consider yourself warned if you park at the University Village shopping center: You may be towed.
Tom-Erik Bockman-Pedersen found that out the hard way recently — and he works there.
It happened at midnight about a month ago, an hour after the co-owner of the American Spirits wine and liquor store at 280 Third St. S closed up. When he came out, his Volkswagen Passat was no longer in the parking lot at Third Street S and Second Avenue.
The towing firm, A-1 Recovery Inc., "did bring it back after I complained," Bockman-Pedersen said, and did not charge him the $100 towing fee.
Bockman-Pedersen and other shopkeepers at University Village say that their customers also have noticed an aggressive trend toward towing cars. They say the downtown parking lot has become a battleground in an area where parking, especially during special events at night, can be hard to find.
Though some downtown parking is meter-free after 6 p.m. and the city provides several large parking lots downtown, people are drawn to park for free at University Village.
There are signs in the lot warning people that they will be towed, but those are often ignored, said Aaron Watkins, president of A-1 Recovery, which has a contract with the Sembler Co., the owner of the property, to tow vehicles from the lot.
"They just leave their vehicle and they think, that's fine, I can park there," Watkins said. "That's not fine."
Sembler said it is simply enforcing the rules. Though most stores at the shopping plaza, including Publix, close at 10 p.m., the 234-space parking lot is reserved for customers only to avoid liability, said David Zook, Sembler's vice president of property management.
Zook said the customer-only policy is strictly enforced. Security contractors roam the lot until midnight, noting who parks and who walks off the lot, and often warn drivers about the towing rules. When they notice illegal parking, the security officers or store employees call A-1.
Several people who work at the shopping center had their cars mistakenly towed in the past month, Watkins said. Since then, shopping center employees have been given placards to display inside their cars.
Watkins said he has about 200 clients, many of them downtown. At University Village, his company collects, and keeps, all the towing fees.
The problem is not only at night. Before the Saturday Morning Market moved to the Mahaffey Theatre parking garage for the summer, the University Village lot was packed on Saturday mornings, Watkins said.
Thomas Haverty, who owns a GNC store there, said neither he nor his customers had room to park. Haverty said he was glad that towing is aggressively enforced.
"We don't open until 10 a.m.," said Haverty, "but I'd come here at 8:30 and this place would be mobbed."
Luis Perez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727)892-2271.