Local Commentary

Editorial: Throw the Book At Predatory Towing

We were not impressed by the reluctant and extremely tardy appearance of representatives of commercial properties in Falls Church showing up at a City Council meeting this Monday only when tough restrictions on the predatory non-consensual towing they’ve condoned on their properties was being considered by the F.C. City Council.

This goes especially for the representative of Federal Realty, owners of the two shopping centers at the City’s West End (homes to the Giant, CVS and Staples), who attempted to justify the huge jump in tows off the parking lots of those centers this year compared to years leading up to it. As Vice Mayor Hal Lippman said “something smells” about statistics showing the number of tows off those lots jumping from 11, 9 and 7 in previous years, to 192 this past year. The Federal Realty representative tried to explain them by large events in D.C. causing Metro-bound motorists to park in the lots, but as Lippman pointed out, there are big events in D.C. all the time, and not just in this past year.

Many of the City’s property owners have been singularly unwilling to voluntarily revise their policies of condoning the “hair trigger” tows of cars even within moments of a car owner stepping off the property in question. Many eyewitnesses have reported what Councilman Dan Maller called the “NASCAR pit stop-style” practice of towing companies swooping in and towing cars within a few moments of an alleged infraction. There are reports that a new hot spot for such activity is now in lots across the street from the State Theatre, late at night long after all the retail stores there are closed.

Shopping center and other commercial property owners, usually absentee landlords notoriously unresponsive to initiatives from City Hall officials to discuss the problem, are not only permitting the unfair (if technically legal, for now) practice, they have been indifferent to how the policy is hurting their own tenants, as Mayor Robin Gardner said Monday, “I don’t understand how a customer getting towed will be a repeat customer. There is a real disconnect there.”

In the case of one non-absentee commercial property landlord of a new mixed-use property on W. Broad, the policy is quite different. Signs stipulating that parking spaces are for the use solely by customers of a bank on the property are told that the restriction only applies to the hours the bank is open, and those hours are posted on the signs. This actually encourages “shared parking” in the spaces after hours, a much more amiable and cooperative approach.

Council members were right in saying the issue is really between property owners and their tenants, but on the other hand, the overall economic environment of Falls Church is suffering from the current free-for-all of predatory towing going on here, and there is no way the City should back away from tough restrictions on the practice.