Arthur Rothenberg enjoyed a leisurely lunch at the Roasters ‘N’ Toasters deli in Pinecrest Friday afternoon. But the retired Miami-Dade circuit judge wasn’t too happy when he finished his turkey wrap and went out to the parking lot to find his car was gone.
It had been towed because someone in management at the Dadeland Plaza shopping center thought he was a customer of the new Trader Joe’s grocery store next door.
“To bolster my credibility, I told them I was a judge because I was furious,” said Rothenberg, who was able to get his car back without paying. “But what about all the other people who are being towed recklessly, who don’t have the fortune to pay the fine, and who don’t have the credibility to bolster their case?”
Pinecrest police said 55 cars were towed around Trader Joe’s over the weekend at the request of property owners. The California-based chain opened its first South Florida outlet at 9205 S. Dixie Hwy. in Pinecrest on Friday.
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The chain has a national cult following, and the local store was mobbed all weekend, much to the distress of neighboring businesses.
“It felt like there was a hurricane and it’s the only place people could park,” said Mimi Hernandez, the manager of City Furniture, 9255 S. Dixie Hwy., which neighbors and shares a parking lot with Trader Joe’s. “I’ve never seen anything like this.”
Traffic around the store also was snarled, with long lines of cars trying to get into the parking lot.
An average of two cars towed per hour, according to Jose Rodriguez, a dispatcher for Whitt Towing, the private towing company responsible for that area. The price of a tow ranged between $104 and $129, according to the company.
Burger King, City Furniture and the Dadeland Plaza were popular places for Trader Joe’s customers to park — despite signs warning shoppers they could be towed.
“They would buy an ice cream cone and be gone for three hours,” said Amber Rodriguez, a manager at Burger King, 9201 S. Dixie Hwy. “I feel bad, but at the end of the day we can’t have Trader Joe’s people parking here and no Burger King people parking here.”
Barbara Llewellyn, one of three managers at Trader Joe’s, said her employees put up signs and told customers where not to park.
“I’m sure Trader Joe’s is going to add to everybody’s business, but it’s frustrating for customers who had a few negative experiences that were being towed,” she said.
Trader Joe’s hired Pinecrest police officers to provide security. This week the store has requested three officers from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Tuesday through Sunday, according to village police.
“We were aware it was opening, but it was almost like a cult following,” said Detective Alexandra Martinez. “There’s no way we could have anticipated this. It’s the first time we’ve seen this amount of attention for this kind of store.”
The 13,800-square-foot store was approved by village officials in late 2012. In January, the village told the Miami Herald that a store of this size requires only 56 parking spaces, but Trader Joe’s had 89.
So far, it still doesn’t seem to be enough.
“You don’t require extra parking based on popularity, that’s not in the zoning code,” said Mayor Cindy Lerner, who expects the rush to die down by the end of the week. “We have to treat everybody on an objective criteria, and that criteria is based on square footage.”
But some surrounding businesses say parking in that portion of the village has always been a problem.
“The city of Pinecrest knew there was not enough parking and they still approved it,” said Dan Kaplan, owner of the Roasters ‘N Toasters where Judge Rothenberg’s car was towed.
While cars parked at City Furniture were not towed because Hernandez opened the side and back lot to the grocer’s customers, many cars were towed from the Dadeland Plaza at the request of plaza management.
James Goldsmith, owner of the plaza, said: “It was a shocking experience and something that the management dealt with. We tried to be a good neighbor, but we can’t have this, we don’t have enough parking.”
Mayor Lerner said, “What happened with the towing is very unfortunate, and I could understand if people were frustrated and unhappy. We have to be a little more patient and understanding.”
Detective Martinez recommends that anyone who is planning to visit the store, and not making any major purchases, take the Metrorail and exit on Dadeland South to alleviate the parking situation.
Llewellyn, of Trader Joe’s, said she is not sure when the influx of customers will die down because it is a new market, but she said, “We’re blessed and lucky that we’ve had such a warm response from Pinecrest.”