Palm Passage parking plan stirs controversy


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ST. THOMAS ­- Since the V.I. Public Works Department designated six spaces in front of Palm Passage for taxi use-only, motorists and taxi drivers have been squabbling over the spaces like hungry seagulls competing over a scrap of food, and business owners are sharply divided about whether the new zone, created in late December, hurts or helps the retail district.

The new regulation seems to be randomly and unevenly enforced; on some days, cars parked in the special spaces take up as many as three of the spots for hours; other days, the V.I. Taxicab Commission orders all cars towed at once so that the lot is crammed with tow trucks and even legally parked motorists cannot get in or out while the cars are being loaded.

Neither the names nor phone numbers of the towing companies are posted anywhere in the lot, and signage does not indicate that improperly parked cars can be towed.

The sign reads: "20 Minute Taxi Pick-Up & Drop-Off Only-VIPD" and uses arrows to designate across all six of the spaces.

The sign indicates only the V.I. Police Department, which could confuse motorists who do not know the Taxicab Commission is a separate entity and would not think to contact them about how to retrieve their car.

Palm Passage store owners and employees are critical of local government officials for ramming through the change without due notice; for the sign's failure to warn motorists of towing; and for towing cars parked in the spaces within 24 hours of the sign being erected.

The change has pitted merchants who rely primarily on tourists for revenue against those who say business is hurt when locals cannot find a convenient place to park in the small lots along the waterfront.

Public Works Commissioner Darryl Smalls projected it will be at least six months before construction at Market Square and along Main Street is complete.

According to V.I. Code 20 Section 497a, the V.I. Police commissioner must allot "not less than one dozen parking areas" exclusively to taxis in the downtown area on days when a tourist ship conveys "over 300 passengers" to port. The code does not specify that advanced notice be given when converting public parking spaces to taxi use.

St. Thomas Administrator Barbara Petersen said she made the change to satisfy Main Street and International Plaza merchants, who were losing foot traffic after construction forced taxis into a single zone near Emancipation Garden.

At a meeting with Petersen in mid-December, about 15 merchants claimed the zone was too far from their stores and that fewer tourists were buying merchandise as a result.

On Sunday, Jan. 13, a Taxicab Commission enforcement officer supervised the towing of five cars from the spaces in front of Palm Passage.

The large tow trucks crowded the lot, making it impossible for legally parked motorists to get out for about 45 minutes, and the rough handling of the vehicles by tow truck drivers attracted a small crowd of onlookers.

Danielle Degain, a sales associate at Hotlook Sunglasses, said she walks to work from Yacht Haven Grande, where her boyfriend works, because she is scared their car will be ticketed or towed. However, Hotlook assistant manager, Sandy Bellott, said the taxis were bringing more tourists to the door and that the new zone was boosting sales.

During the towing on Jan. 13, Degain tried to capture a tow truck driver damaging a red Acura on video.

Damian McCullough, a tourist who was shopping at Palm Passage, said the tow truck driver rammed the back bumper of the Acura against a concrete block "at least three times" and recklessly yanked the car up onto the tow platform by its undercarriage.

"I have to believe it was intentional," McCullough said. "What I saw here was absolutely ridiculous, a total lack of respect for personal property. It's one thing to give a person a ticket and tow their car. It's posted, and that's all fine, but you don't destroy their property."

Another Palm Passage employee said the taxi drivers assisted the Taxicab Commission's towing spree the same day the sign went up by blocking cars in the lot until tow trucks arrived.

"The way they did it was a cheap trick. They put a sign up that wasn't even clear," said Marie Perry, who works at S.O.S Antiques. "One day they put a sign up, and then they blocked both exits from the parking lot and towed people. It was mean."

Randolph Maynard, owner of Amalia Cafe and Pita Express, two restaurants that are favorites of locals and tourists alike, said he spent $125 to have his car returned from impounding, and he plans to fight another battle in court over the $50 citation.

He said he didn't notice the change and parked in his usual spot the day after the sign went up.

Petersen said she and Taxicab Commission Director Judith Wheatley also allotted a zone of about five spaces in front of Pizza Hut and Magic Ice for taxi use only as part of the same plan.

Complaints from those who are ticketed and towed are to be expected, but the plan's purpose was to ease congestion and "create a better environment" for motorists, merchants and taxi drivers, Petersen said.

"We didn't just do this because we felt like it," she said. "The reason is to drive business into those areas. When a taxi drops people off there, they are more inclined to walk into those stores and restaurants. When you have people who work there, and they are utilizing those spaces all day, that is going to hurt them."

Ramu Totwani, who was one of the merchants who met with Petersen and Wheatley, said he relies on tourists for about 90 percent of the sales at his Main Street jewelry store, Ram's Jewelers. The new zones have almost restored foot traffic to the level it was before Market Square construction began, and he cannot imagine why Palm Passage owners would feel differently, he said.

"I really don't know if it's fair or not, but I can't see why they would be upset. It really shouldn't affect their business," Totwani said. "Whenever I go to Palm Passage, the restaurant is packed. The stores are really busy."

Ruth Prager, owner of Gallery St. Thomas in Palm Passage, said the take-over of the spaces was another unfair burden leveled at local store owners and their employees, and accused local government of catering to the needs of the V.I. Taxi Association at the expense of everyone else.

Prager said she has nowhere to park when delivering items to her gallery, and having to move her car every two hours to adhere to restrictions in the rest of the lot is a hassle and an interruption to doing business.

"The parking lot is full so much of the time when you come to work, there is no place else to park," she said. "They are making it so hard to be in business here."

Petersen defended her plan as being in the best interest of local merchants, taxi drivers and motorists equally.

Wheatley could not say how many vehicles the Taxicab Commission had towed from the six spaces since the installation of the sign.

Regarding whether the sign was clear enough that cars would be towed, she said Public Works is responsible for creating signs, and that she could not speak to that.

She also affirmed that her agency, not solely the V.I. Police Department, has the authority to ticket and tow vehicles in order to enforce regulations on taxi-only spaces.

Smalls said the immediate towing of cars from a reserved zone was within the law "because any time you have a reserved space sign, it is a requirement that people adhere to it by law."

As far as the sign's failing to specify that cars will be towed, Smalls compared the sign to a stop sign, saying, "There's nothing on a stop sign that says that if you violate it, you are going to be ticketed, but it is understood."

- Contact reporter Amanda Norris at 714-9104 or email anorris@dailynews.vi.

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