There it is, the needle in the haystack — eureka! — a parking spot smack dab in front of the restaurant where you will silence your grumbling stomach.
But, no, you realize, pounding the steering wheel. The spot is not open. It is reserved for valet parking. The meter is covered with a hood, as if it’d been kidnapped. That prime piece of pavement has been set aside for someone willing and able to pay a premium for curbside convenience. And that special someone is not you, who would rather walk a half mile in the heat than hand over an extra $10, $20, even $45 for valet service.
To valet or not to valet? That is the question that divides South Florida car culture’s slavish adherents. Some think it’s magical. Others consider it diabolical.
But it is inescapable. Valet parking has spread like a choking algae bloom to every corner of our car-addicted habitat. Wherever you go — hotel, condo, café, club, mega mall, strip mall, theater, doctor’s office, even church on Sunday — there’s a valet parking stand monopolizing spaces.
National parking companies Standard Parking Plus and Citizens say Miami is one of their top valet markets along with New York City, Chicago and San Francisco. In those high-density cities, where space to park is scarce, drivers use valet because they have little choice. But in Miami, easy access fuels the desire for valet. Or, to put it more bluntly, laziness.
“We in Miami don’t like to walk,” said Art Noriega, CEO of the Miami Parking Authority, which manages the city's parking operations. “It’s hot, it’s humid, thunderstorms pop up. To get people to walk even a couple blocks is difficult. It’s embedded in our local culture. They want to park exactly where they’re going with minimal effort. In New York or Chicago, yes, it’s cold, but there’s a train station every few blocks, there’s a robust transit system and people are accustomed to walking.”
Valet parking is also a manifestation of Miami’s conspicuous consumption.
“In Miami, valet has a certain cachet,” said Chester Escobar, past president of the Florida Parking and Transportation Association and regional manager for Standard Parking Plus, which operates at Bayside, Brickell City Centre, the Shops at Merrick Park, Port Everglades and Baptist hospital, among other locations. “There are restaurants and stores where the clientele wants to drop off their Bentley or Porsche. People in Miami want to eat and shop and leave parking as an afterthought.”
At Dadeland mall, you can pay $7 to valet park on weekdays and $10 on weekends. Or you can walk 25 yards from the parking lot. On a recent evening, as a Rolls Royce, Range Rover and Mercedes-Benz G Wagon pulled up to the valet stand, at least 60 spaces in close proximity to the mall’s entrance by the Cheesecake Factory and Saks Fifth Avenue were blocked off by valet signs. All of them were empty.
Whether or not you use valet says something about your personality and your income bracket.
“It’s nice not to have to worry about another daily aggravation,” said Dr. Antonio Herrera, an oncologist and trauma surgeon who had just driven his Hyundai from Hallandale through heavy traffic after a brutal work day. He chose to pay $25 for Dadeland’s VIP valet option, which keeps your car parked nearby for a quick exit. “You look at the cost-benefit ratio. If you’re on a busy schedule it’s more efficient. And a lot of us are always running late.”
Jorge Duarte is not a VIP and becoming one is not on his list of priorities. He shuns valet.
“To pay $10 for something you can do yourself? That’s crazy,” said Duarte, driver of a Chevrolet Impala. It costs $30 to valet park at Bal Harbour Shops. “This is a shopping mall where customers are spending money. All parking should be free.”
In the olden days, a valet ran his master’s bath, trimmed his beard, sorted his mail. King Louis XV had 36 valets. Inspector Clouseau had Kato. Today we have manservants in sneakers (when was the last time you saw a woman?) parking and fetching our cars.
Let’s say you have a doctor’s appointment in Kendall, a suburb where the parking lots are vast enough to graze a herd of cattle. Some medical offices have switched to “Valet Only,” despite the bounty of open spaces. Often it’s complimentary, but you still have to tip the attendant, after waiting for him to retrieve your car. Perhaps if patients were simply allowed to walk back and forth to their cars they would require fewer visits to the doctor.
Rey Ruiz is distrustful of valet attendants. As a former Miami-Dade police sergeant, he read many reports of theft and damage.
“Lots of incidents, including one guy taking a sports car for a spin and wrecking it,” he said. “They’ve got 18-year-old kids parking these cars. How responsible can they be? I was that age and I know what I’d do if I had a Corvette or Ferrari in my hands.”
Ruiz avoids valet parking his $150,000 Mercedes-Benz, but during a stay at a hotel in Naples, he was told valet was his “only option.” The next morning he noticed that his instrument panel had been fiddled with, the parking lights had been left on and he wound up having to replace two dead batteries for $400. The hotel wouldn’t reimburse him.
“I went to a restaurant in Fort Lauderdale recently and said, ‘Please, please, let me park my own car,’ and they did but still charged me the $10 valet fee,” Ruiz said. “I think there are more cons than pros to valet parking. A lot of people don’t want to pay an additional $15-$20 on top of the cost of a dinner out. Plus tip. If you don’t tip them they’ll scratch your car.”
Centralized valet parking has been introduced in the business districts of Coral Gables and Coconut Grove, and merchants say customers who may have stayed home to avoid the pain of parking like being able to drop off their car at one stand and pick it up at another a few blocks away.
“When the valet stand was in front of our store during construction we saw an uptick in foot traffic and business, and that has continued with this new service,” said Jill Hornick, co-owner of Jae’s Jewelers, the oldest establishment on Miracle Mile. “The $8 rate is one of the lowest around. It’s $5 in the Grove. You’d pay two or three times that in Miami Beach or Brickell.
“If you don’t want to pay extra, it’s a matter of education. I wouldn’t say parking is a problem in Coral Gables. If you are aware of what’s available you can go on surrounding streets like Aragon and Andalusia and find spaces and garages.”
The Design District provides $5 valet parking, a not-so-ritzy rate subsidized by its glam businesses because developer Craig Robins did not want the district to be stigmatized as a parking nightmare, as Miami Beach was.
“Perception is reality in parking. You can scientifically prove there’s sufficient parking in a city but the perception remains that there is not,” Escobar said. “Miami Beach is perceived as a headache even though there is enough parking except for very certain areas during peak events.”
Tom Richerson lives in North Beach and enjoys going out in South Beach, but the proliferation of valet parking drove him mad.
“If my wife was dressed up she’d be frustrated with me circling three or four blocks and then making her walk, so I’d drop her off and show up 15 minutes later,” he said. “I am anti-valet but sometimes it was a necessary evil. I considered it another big tax for living in Miami Beach. You’re usually waiting in a queue to drop your car then waiting 30 minutes to retrieve your car, so it’s not really more convenient in terms of time.”
Miami Beach overhauled its valet regulations three years ago to reduce chaos. Where there used to be multiple valet operators per block, now it’s limited to one operator per block utilizing four spaces. Miami Beach charges valet companies $35 per day to rent a city space; the city of Miami charges $10.
“Thirty percent of congestion is people circling the block and searching,” said Saul Frances, director of parking for Miami Beach. “With more control of valet, we’ve cut congestion tremendously and returned cheaper spaces to the public.”
The parking business is booming but changing. Parking generates $29 billion in annual revenue nationwide, according to the National Parking Association. Miami Beach, which has 16,000 spaces citywide, generated $60.7 million in revenue — 10.5 percent of the city’s total revenue — and $4.1 million in profits in fiscal 2016. The Miami Parking Authority, which manages 11,210 off-street spaces and 37,970 garage spaces, generated $34.2 million in revenue — 5 percent of the city’s total — and $7.4 million in profit.
“Valet parking enables you to maximize your real estate,” Escobar said, explaining the economics of valet. “Let's take three spaces in front of a restaurant. You get three parties parked for dinner and you’re done for the evening. But with valet you’re turning over those spaces five or six times and storing the cars in underutilized spots perceived to be far away that the consumer doesn’t want to use. People don’t like those prized front-door spaces taken away from them but you’re improving traffic flow and getting people out of their cars quicker.
“Turn self parking in a building garage into valet and you can stack cars and do tandem and aisle parking because you’ve got all the keys. You’re creating more spaces. You’re maximizing your parking inventory.”
But parking as we know it is in the midst of a revolution. Uber and Lyft are transforming the way people get from Point A to Point B. So are trolleys, Freebees, bikes, scooters. You can leave your car at home — or do without one.
“There is a downward trend in parking, particularly in the hotel, restaurant and hospitality industry,” Frances said. “We’ve seen a reduction in demand by 20 percent over the last two years and valet companies are seeing a decrease in utilization by 20-40 percent. There is more parking availability in Miami Beach now and the valet operations on Ocean Drive, Washington and Collins are not as lucrative as they used to be.”
Mariano Alvaro, owner of Magnum Parking Solutions, said Uber has killed many of his valet contracts with restaurants, which would pay his company an hourly rate. He's shifted his focus to offices, condos and hotels, and has a station at a clinic in Pinecrest with a small lot and a large number of patients.
"In the valet business, we have to pay insurance, employee salaries and rental for car storage, which in Miami Beach can be $4,000 a month, plus the city charges $35 per public space, so you have to park a lot of cars or it can be a difficult business," Alvaro said.
But there's never a dull day. Alvaro recalled one time when a restaurant patron got in his Mercedes-Benz SL 500 and drove off. Two hours later a couple came out, got into the same make and color of the car and said it wasn't theirs.
"Both cars were brand new from the dealer with paper tags and got mixed up," Alvaro said. "Thank God we knew the first owner, who hadn't noticed he drove the wrong car, and we called him and he brought it back."
Alvaro said he is meticulously careful about Ferraris, Lamborghinis and other exotic cars that are tricky to drive and can have unfamiliar controls.
"We have a very good reputation, and there's also an app if the attendant has a question, like, 'I'm in a Bentley; how do I turn the lights off?'" said Alvaro, who added that the most unpleasant aspect of the job for an attendant is having to park a car with a stinky pigsty interior. "You really don't want to know what sort of mess some people make."
While valet remains a popular amenity, and is easy for tourists who don’t know the city, locals like Richerson have become Uber converts.
“Ride-sharing is changing the parking challenge equation,” said Richerson, who also bought a Vespa to reduce parking hassles. “It’s less stressful, more timely and — most eye-opening — less expensive. It’s $20-$30 to valet in some places and Uber is $10 one way and you can split it with friends. We'll take Uber to Brickell.”
Even Noriega, who knows all the parking hacks of the metropolis, takes Uber from his home in South Kendall to Miami Beach.
Could valet parking become obsolete someday? Autonomous, self-driving cars could erase the need for attendants. But sea rise is on the horizon, too. Maybe we’ll need valet paddlers for our kayaks. Don’t forget to tip them.