Illegal parkers have always risked being ticketed and towed. Now there's a new peril.
From the May, 2021 issue
A local musician says he's parked for years in the lots at First Baptist and First United Methodist churches on Washington St. for gigs and rehearsals at the Michigan Theater. Despite signs saying it was private parking, no one ever bothered him--until the night in March when he returned to his car at First Baptist and saw something "pretty much covering the entire windshield." It was "bright yellow, about eighteen by thirty-six [inches, and] a couple of inches thick."
It's called a Barnacle, and it was stuck on his windshield by the private company that manages parking at the church lots. "About a year ago," says the musician, signs went up at both lots "that parking was being run by AirGarage, and that you're supposed to scan the QR code on their sign or call the number and use your phone to make a payment with a credit card. So I did that."
"But then one day I was talking to somebody at the Methodist church, and he said, 'Oh, we don't really pay much attention to that. The signs are there just to kind of discourage people.'"
So when the musician saw the Barnacle, "I was befuddled and perplexed. It was after hours. There was nobody in the church. It was not taking anything away from anybody. With the First Methodist, I had done so much work with the music department there I kind of felt like an insider."
He was an outsider now--and barnacled. "There was no getting it off," he says. "and you absolutely could not have driven with it on." So he scanned the code on the device and discovered it would cost him $400 to remove--with half refundable when he returned the device.
"I had no option," he says. He paid the $400 online with a credit card and was texted a code to enter into a keypad on the device, releasing the suction cups that held it in place. "Then they said this has
to be returned within twenty-four hours, or we'll charge an additional $1,000!"
He tried calling and texting, but all he got was an address on E. Washington. Flustered, "I put the thing in my backseat and drove home. Every ten or fifteen minutes, it would give off the most wretched ear-splitting chirp."
The next morning he returned to look around in daylight. In the Methodists' lot, he saw "this homemade little shanty thing. I walked over and, by golly, this was the Barnacle return bin."
He dropped it off, but later stopped at First Baptist to ask his friends there what was going on. They "said that they were frustrated with people parking on their lot," he recalls. "As these high-rise luxury apartment buildings keep springing up here, there, and everywhere, the demand for parking in that part of Ann Arbor is increased exponentially. It would be a shame to not be able to utilize those spaces, especially because the churches aren't using them."
Will he ever park there illegally again? "Hell, no!"
AirGarage was started in 2017 at Arizona State University by students Scott Fitsimones, Chelsea Border, and Jonathon Barkl. "We wanted basically to make parking as easy as pulling a garage out of thin air," says Barkl of the name.
They started by renting driveways from nearby homeowners and then moved on to churches. One was renting out its parking during the work week but "had these hair-on-fire problems running this parking lot and spending 90 percent of their time as a church focused on 'how do we run this parking lot' and 10 percent of their time focused on 'how do we run the church,'" Barkl says. So AirGarage made them an offer to "take all of this off your plate."
The church agreed, and they split the parking revenue. "The church gets 70 percent, we get 30 percent, and then our 30 percent goes towards covering the cost of installing signage and doing enforcement and processing payments from drivers," explains Barkl.
They found the perfect enforcement tool in the Barnacle. Introduced in 2016 by NYC-based Barnacle Parking Solutions, it effectively immobilizes vehicles without the hassles and costs of towing and impounding them.
"Churches are great partners," emails Barkl. "They have underutilized parking spaces available for the community, and the additional funding generated through public parking helps them support their outreach and community assistance programs. It's a win-win."
AirGarage now has eleven full-time employees and operates lots in 115 locations in thirty states--and Fitsimones, Border, and Barkl have all dropped out of school to become respectively the company's chief technology officer, chief data officer, and chief executive officer.
First Baptist was their first Ann Arbor client, in 2019. "We reached out to them via email," says Barkl. He says the pitch was, "You're a perfect fit for this based on your location. It seems like you would really actually make a pretty good amount of money."
"AirGarage has just been such a great partnership," says Paula Burton, chair of First Baptist's board of trustees. "We think very highly of them."
Illegal parkers had always been a problem. "We would put warnings on cars, the windows, and keep a record of who had parked in the lot," explains church business manager Kat Becker. "And usually after three or four warnings we'd give them a final warning, and then they would be towed." But all that enforcement chewed up a huge part of Becker's day.
"Having a partnership with AirGarage, it actually frees me up to do my work," she says. And they're making $1,400 monthly from the lot now.
"One of the biggest selling points was just the flexibility of their app," adds Burton, "and telling them on any given day or even any given set of hours in a day you can have five spaces or you can have twenty-three."
AirGarage has since added the lots at First Methodist and U-M Hillel, as well as a private parking lot on E. Liberty near Fifth. It's "a risk-free way for churches or small businesses to find new income," Barkl says.
He touts its convenience for drivers as well. "When you get there, you push the start button, when you leave, you push an end button, and we bill you for the exact amount of time that you parked."
But then there's what happens when drivers don't pay. Barkl wouldn't connect us to a local AirGarage worker, but says they go through the lots on a regular basis, leaving warnings on vehicles that haven't paid to park and aren't registered as belonging to the lot owners. AirGarage promotes its system as a better alternative to booting or towing, because drivers don't have to find a ride to a tow lot to get their cars back, or pay impound fees. "Our goal was never really to Barnacle someone," Barkl says. "But after three warnings, then we will unfortunately have to Barnacle people."
Asked how often that happens, he emails that they've Barnacled about five cars per month in Ann Arbor since October 1, "compared with the approximately 2,500 vehicles that have been legally parked in these parking lots."
What if a driver complains? "We look them up in our system and we say, well, actually, I do have a photo record that shows your same vehicle was here on this date, this date and this date," he writes.
We emailed the musician to ask if he remembered getting any warning.
"Well ... now that you mention it, I do recall finding a slip of paper under my windshield wiper once, telling me to contact them and pay," he wrote back. "I hung on to it for a little while, while I pondered what to do, and it got forgotten."
[Originally published in May, 2021.]
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