Getting your car towed in Houston is its own special circle of hell. Last Wednesday night, I met a friend at Nabi and when we finished our meal a little after 10 p.m., we walked the 328 feet (verified by Google Maps) to Anvil for drinks, leaving our cars in the restaurant parking lot. By the time we got back around 1 a.m., both our cars were towed.
We called the number for Ranger Tow on the sign that cites "abandonment" and "illegal parking" as vague causes for towing. Less than an hour later, we were waiting outside a dark, fenced-in complex and escorted into a dark office by an attendant who would not acknowledge me. (He only talked to my male friend.) The fee was $218.30 per car.
When we tried to explain that we had eaten at the restaurant where we were parked and just gone down the street, the attendant told us to talk to the tow truck company, which is separate from the tow-lot company according to him, although they are both named Ranger Tow and under the same address on the receipt.
If I had thought about it, I never would have left my car in that parking lot because I know that tow trucks are a persistent parasite in Montrose. But I was having fun, so I didn't think. Still, Nabi closed at 10:30, so our cars weren't taking any needed space away from other customers. It took the two of us less than three minutes to walk from the restaurant to the bar. Instead of doing that, the situation required that we both get into our separate cars and drive them the (again) 328 feet to our new location and re-park them, effectively rendering one of the busiest nightlife streets in the city unwalkable, and a game of musical chairs.
I called Nabi a few days later to ask about their tow policy, and owner Ji Kang was very nice. He even offered to have me come in again for some discounted food. "We're not responsible for the towing company," he explained. "Our landlord, who owns the land and the building itself, contracts with them. The policy they put in place is that whenever we close, any car that's on the lot will get towed. We do that because we've had our building vandalized."
It's normal for a bar or restaurant to have a contract with a towing company in case someone parks in front of their dumpster or does in fact abandon their car. But Nabi in particular has given Ranger Tow a free pass to come in and tow any car they see after 10:30 p.m. Weirdly, Kang mentioned that he has also gotten his car towed from the Nabi lot. "I told [the tow company] that I was the owner. They told me to prove it, and I gave them my business card. But I still had to pay because I was parked there." It's like we live in a Kafka novel or something.
Although the restaurant does have a stack of parking permits to offer customers who want to walk elsewhere afterwards, no one told me that I could have asked for one until after it was too late. That's something the restaurant could post on their menu or doors if they know that towing is an issue and want to help. Their strategy may discourage vandals from walking from site to site, but it works on paying customers too.
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I called Bobby Heugel to get an OKRA perspective on the situation, and he said this: "It's time that restaurants start to talk about having a more cooperative relationship when it comes to parking. Right now, everyone is coming up with their own solutions independently -- the neighbors worried about street parking, the businesses that need parking space and the customers who want to park. We need community-based solutions that benefit everyone."
Houston is a sprawling city with few walkable neighborhoods, and that is unsustainable as we continue to grow. At some point, we will have to embrace a future with more dense and compact areas, if we want to continue to be livable and successful. We need an inclusive, public-minded solution to the fact that a vibrant and expanding neighborhood like Montrose will only be held back by punishing people for trying to support the retail and restaurants there. The businesses are there and people want to get to them, but the every-man-for-himself approach that forces entrepreneurs to simply buy land and turn it into single-level parking that only serves their own business will hurt Houston in the long run.