BUCKTOWN — On a Saturday afternoon in mid-April, Wicker Park resident Tess Syriac planned to make a quick stop for beers and burgers to bring home to some friends hanging out at her house.
She had already placed an order online at Small Cheval, 1732 N. Milwaukee Ave., and said she planned to stop at the Garfield’s Beverage Express liquor store across the street right after.
Syriac parked in the Garfield’s lot across from the restaurant and went in to pick up her order. But when she got back just a few minutes later, she found an unpleasant surprise attached to her car.
“My food was already ready, so I didn’t have to wait. I literally just walked over, grabbed the food, came back, and there was a boot on my car. And I was like, ‘I’m literally going into Garfield’s right now to grab beers.’ And they were like, ‘It doesn’t matter. You left the premises,'” Syriac said. “And so I had to pay a fine.”
Syriac didn’t have her credit card on her, so ended up paying $170 — the maximum fine booting companies are allowed to charge in Chicago — via Venmo, according to a screenshot of the transaction reviewed by Block Club.
Two months later, Syriac is still angry about the whole experience.
“I think that like it’s pretty ridiculous, right? Like Small Cheval obviously doesn’t have a ton of parking. They clearly saw me leave and come back. It was like a matter of minutes,” she said.
In early January, something similar happened to a woman named Janet, who works in Wicker Park, when she ordered food at the same Small Cheval location. The woman asked to be referred to by only her middle name.
“There was no street parking, so I just thought, ‘Oh, let me just go into this lot.’ And I parked there and I went to grab my food. It was a total of two minutes because I had already paid for the food before I arrived,” she said.
When she returned, she also found a boot on her car, along with an attendant from booting company Innovative Parking Solutions telling her she had to pay $170 to get it taken off.
Janet ended up negotiating the fine, and ultimately paid $100 to get the boot removed, according to a credit card transaction reviewed by Block Club.
Janet said she realizes she violated the lot’s rules, and that as private property owners they’re entitled to decide who can park there. But she said the lightning fast nature of the booting felt “predatory” and ultimately counter-productive to keeping non-customers out of the lot.
“It was immediate, like there wasn’t a grace period. And the time that it took for me to negotiate everything, I took up a parking space for nearly an hour,” she said. “I think that it’s not in the best interests of the actual business owners.”
Syriac and Janet’s bootings are just two instances of what one employee at the Bucktown shopping center, 1704 N. Milwaukee Ave., said happens dozens of times per week in the parking lot, mostly to delivery drivers and others picking up food at Small Cheval.
“Monday and Tuesday, you’ll maybe see three or four boots go on cars, but then on a Friday and Saturday, I mean, there’s literally people leaving without the boot only because they did not have enough boots to boot all the cars they wanted to at the time,” said the employee, who asked to remain anonymous to avoid problems with his employer.
The practice has led to scores of negative online reviews for the Bucktown Garfield’s location, with some customers pledging to never shop there again.
But Garfield’s COO Adam Silverstein said the company has nothing to do with the booting, and that Innovative Parking Solutions was hired by the shopping center’s landlord, PCR Group. The company’s president William Senne did not return calls for comment.
Innovative Parking Solutions operates at more than 100 parking lots across Chicago, owner Michael Denigris told Block Club.
Denigris disputed that “dozens” of people are booted every week at the Bucktown lot, but did say the property is busy. Denigris stressed that his employees follow all city rules and regulations, and that he’s posted significantly more warning signs around the property than required.
He also argues booting is better than the alternative: getting towed.
“[Towing] takes two to three hours to retrieve your car. First you have to find out who took it, then you have to go down there and get it … with us, you sit in your vehicle, you pay the fee, and then they go right on their way, within two or three minutes they could be gone,” Denigris said. “So it is the better, more modern approach to trying to correct the problem. People don’t understand that.”
Soon, more Chicagoans may be able to decide for themselves whether the boot is better. Ald. Ariel Reboyras (30th) and Ald. Ray Lopez (15th) have introduced an ordinance to City Council that would allow private booting companies to operate across the entire city.
‘$170 is a lot to pay for a split second error in judgment’
Booting is legal on a ward-by-ward basis, with each alderman deciding if businesses can allow the practice on privately-owned parking lots.
Currently, 34 wards allow booting, and that number could soon rise to 35 as Ald. Anthony Beale (9th) introduced a measure last month to allow booting in his Far South Side ward.
The ordinance backed by Reboyras and Lopez argues every business citywide should have the right to hire a booting company to ensure only paying customers park in their lots.
“Businesses suffer great financial harm when their off-street parking lots are occupied by vehicles belonging to non-customers and other unauthorized users, depriving paying customers of the ability to park at their businesses and sending those customers elsewhere,” the ordinance reads.
Making private booting legal across the entire city is something Denigris’s company is spending money — and clout — to bring to fruition.
Former North Side alderman Joe Moore was hired by Innovative Parking Solutions to lobby his former colleagues on behalf of the boot company. Asked why he was pushing an expansion of booting, Reboyras previously told Block Club he introduced the ordinance after speaking with Moore.
Denigris said the ordinance is necessary to support his own business. When booting is effective, non-customers come to the lot less frequently, he said. That’s part of why he wants to be able to expand across the entire city.
“When our business works so well, people stop parking illegally. We don’t make any money so we have to move on and grow. And that’s the difficulty we’ve been having lately,” he said. “We don’t grow, we don’t make money, we have to lay people off.”
Denigris also argues shifting ward maps every decade makes it confusing for drivers, parkers and aldermen to know where booting is legal or illegal. A new ward map approved by City Council will go into effect next year.
“Sometimes the wards change their parameters, like the 1st Ward now goes into the 2nd Ward, and they lose property but they gain property, and if our properties are stuck in the middle … people lose jobs and we lose clients,” he said.
The booting ordinance is currently in front of City Council’s Committee on License and Consumer Protection, but was tabled before a vote in June. If passed by the full City Council, booting companies would be allowed to charge $170 for the removal of a boot in any lot where they’re contracted across the city.
But the ordinance has faced stiff opposition from Ald. Daniel La Spata (1st), who has emerged as a vocal opponent to private booting since he banned the practice in his ward last year. La Spata said Reboyras’ ordinance is being “foisted” upon aldermen, and he has worked to stall it in City Council.
“To me, $170 is a lot to pay for a split second error in judgment,” La Spata said. “I do believe that this is an issue where aldermanic prerogative is valid, where we should have a voice in this practice and whether it is appropriate for our communities.”
While he agreed it could be confusing for people since multiple wards can sometimes exist in one neighborhood, La Spata said Denigris’ company has been unwilling to consider “reforms” to the process — like requiring booting companies to give a verbal warning before attaching a boot.
Denigris said a verbal warning system would be virtually impossible, because each person parking in a lot would have to be notified immediately upon leaving their car.
He said while booting gets bad rap, it’s the most efficient method of parking management. He said business owners do not receive any of the fine money, and that he also doesn’t require any quota or have his employees work on commission.
“When a store opens up a parking lot which is a commodity to patrons, not a gratuity for non-patrons … they don’t want people visiting other stores,” Denigris said.
But La Spata said he believes Reboyras’ ordinance is really just a “backdoor way” of bringing booting, as it is currently practiced, back to the 1st Ward.
“I am more than willing to sit down with them and discuss the reforms that I would be open to. But barring that, it’s not a practice worth bringing back to the 1st Ward,” he said. “Perhaps they could convince 49 others, but there’s going to be a holdout. And I believe the 1st Ward was probably very lucrative to this company.”
Reboyras did not return calls for comment.
‘We are the opposite of predatory’
Legally, booted drivers don’t have much recourse if they leave a private lot to shop at another business.
Parkers who believe they’ve been wrongfully booted can lodge a complaint through the city’s Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection. Denigris said he also has his own in-house appeal system, and will grant partial or full refunds depending on the situation.
Booting companies are required to post at least two signs in each lot they work in. The Bucktown parking lot had around 10 as of last week.
But witnessing the practice day in and day out, the shopping center employee said he’s come to feel the company is “closer to a parasite,” especially as many of the people booted are delivery drivers earning a small percentage of each order.
The frustration over the practice came to a head when the employee watched as a driver was booted while picking up food during a severe thunderstorm June 13 that led to several tornado warnings in the Chicago area.
In video of the event reviewed by Block Club, the driver parks in the lot at 6:37 p.m., before crossing the street to Small Cheval at 6:39 p.m., according to a timestamp. About 15 seconds later, a man pulls up in an SUV, removes a boot from the trunk, and attaches it to the drivers car, finishing by 6:41 p.m.
Twenty seconds after that, the driver returns to find the boot on his car. The video shows him talking with the booting company employee and talking on the phone, while standing outside. Finally, after more than 10 minutes, the boot is removed and the driver leaves the lot. Several lightning strikes are visible throughout the video.
The shopping center employee said witnessing the situation made him extremely angry.
“The rain’s pouring down and he is just incapable of leaving and securing his own body because this boot is on the car and the guy is just standing there refusing to let him leave,” the shopping center employee said. “Unsavory is perhaps even putting it too lightly. Even calling it a business practice, I don’t think is completely accurate.”
Denigris said he wasn’t aware of the situation June 13, but if the driver contacted him, he would consider an appeal.
“Nobody was even out because of the rain, how bad it was. … So it was kind of empty. So I don’t understand why they would have parked in the lot, but I would listen to the story,” he said.
Silverstein, Garfield’s COO, said the lot’s booting problem could be mostly alleviated if other businesses on Milwaukee Avenue added loading zones for pickup and delivery drivers.
The shopping center employee agreed the Bucktown lot is “perpetually overcrowded” and in need of some kind of parking solution. But he doesn’t think booting is the answer, especially when it can keep people in a parking spot for way longer than they’d otherwise be there. He’d like to see the practice banned citywide.
“The solution that has been created is putting a boot on someone’s car. And that ends up keeping them there for oftentimes an hour while they try to get money Venmo’d to them or you know, figure out a different solution. And it just clogs up the parking lot further,” he said.
Denigris said the booting solution does work and makes people think twice before parking illegally. He denied accusations of predatory behavior.
“If an employee thought that every car he booted was more beneficial to him, that’s predatory. We are the opposite of predatory. They call us predatory but we’re not, because my guys don’t get commission on each car. They get paid by the hour. When a person tries to park in a parking lot [in order to] not pay the meter, they’re being predatory,” he said.
In the 1st Ward, La Spata said he understands the frustrating nature of the shifting rules dependent on ward boundaries. But he still believes he made the right call to ban booting last year.
“I hold firm on this that I did make the right decision for my constituents,” he said.
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