Last week, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that the Braves had quietly asked for and received new traffic ordinances from Cobb County lawmakers. The Accessory Special Event Parking rule, which is among those edicts, bans all privately owned parking lots near the team’s new stadium from operating on game days when it opens next season.
There will be no public transportation to the stadium, so people will have to drive, and park, and the rule effectively stipulates that only the team can make money on parking. The AJC story held that the there was “no public discussion of the parking ordinance beyond the title being read into the record.”
The Braves issued a statement saying that they’d asked for the statutory parking monopoly for “the safety of the fans.”
Ah, the ol’ safety scam. The Braves aren’t the first scoundrels to trot out “safety” as an excuse to get a parking monopoly. Their efforts in Cobb County matter of factly mimic two campaigns to weaponize parking previously launched by Dan Snyder, owner of the Washington Redskins and the godfather of so many forms of fan gouging.
Snyder used the safety argument to his financial advantage when he bought the team in 1999, and again later during his brief and lowlight-laden run with the Six Flags amusement park chain.
Snyder’s charades met with early success. Then a Washington, D.C. attorney named J.P. Szymkowicz stood up for the fans and stared down the owner and his political cronies. “They said it was a safety issue,” Szymkowicz told me years ago. “It wasn’t a safety issue.”
Szymkowicz’s battles with Snyder over parking could be instructive for those in Atlanta hoping to repeal the Cobb County bogusness.
Shortly after Snyder became owner, the Skins lobbied the Prince George’s County authorities to authorize a ban on all pedestrians from entering the grounds of Jack Kent Cooke Stadium (renamed FedExField after the delivery firm offered Snyder $205 million), even on public sidewalks. No public hearings were held before the ban went into effect. There was essentially no public transportation to the games, so the ban meant fans had no choice but to drive and park in the Snyder-owned lots.
Pedestrian ban/parking monopoly in hand, Snyder jacked the parking rate up from $10 to $25.
Szymkowicz found out about the ban after a friend had given him a pass to sit in the owner’s suite for a Washington/Dallas game at FedEx in 2001, but didn’t have a parking pass. Not wanting to pay $25 for a free ticket, Szymkowicz parked for free at Landover Mall, located about a half-mile from FedEx Field’s front entrance, and walked over, only to be told by police that walking into the stadium was against the law.
Szymkowicz filed a class action lawsuit to overturn the ban. Lawyers for the team argued that the prohibition was necessary for fan safety. A centerpiece of their argument was that two pedestrians had died outside the stadium after being hit by cars. Alas, as Szymkowicz pointed out, both deaths had occurred after the ban was put in place.
Szymkowicz brought in James Slusser, director of public safety and security at Camden Yards, to testify how pedestrian traffic was safely managed for Orioles games, which were played at an urban venue that was bordered by far busier roads than was FedExField. Slusser testified how walk-ins at O’s games had been managed for years without implementing a pedestrian ban or granting the home team a parking monopoly. He found a memo from local zoning officials stating that the “the Redskins organization has worked to discourage and eliminate parking at Landover Mall” after a team survey during a Monday night game in 2000 found that 1,560 cars were using that lot to escape Snyder’s parking fees. Szymkowicz called that memo the “smoking gun” in making his case that the ban on pedestrian traffic was about parking revenues, and not safety.
The county’s ban was repealed in October 2004. Szymkowicz not only had beaten Snyder, he’d also exposed the owner, who’d positioned himself as an everyfan when he bought the team, as the anti-fan phony he was.
Snyder got up to his old parking tricks again soon, however. Only the venue had changed. In 2005, Snyder led a stockholder revolt that left him chairman of the board of Six Flags. Among the first moves the company made under his direction was to lobby the city council of Agawam, Mass., home of Six Flags New England, to ban all private parking lots in the area other than those operated by the theme park. Snyder had dispatched lieutenant and former ESPN big shot Mark Shapiro to the small burg to tell its leaders that the offsite parking ban was necessary for safety reasons. The operators of the private lots in the area told the council that they’d been offering competing parking services without a single pedestrian incident in the previous 20 years.
But the council, with the support of Agawam Mayor Richard Cohen, granted Snyder the parking monopoly he craved. Visitors to Six Flags New England were soon paying the theme park triple the $5-$10 rates that nearby private lots had charged before the ban kicked in.
But the worm turned when Michael Palazzi, owner of one of the offsite lots impacted by the Six Flags ban, recognized Snyder’s efforts in Agawam as being nearly identical to what he had pulled in Prince George’s County. Palazzi brought a copy of a newspaper article about Szymkowicz’s fight with Snyder to a city council meeting and distributed copies of the story to members and attendees. Palazzi then drafted a local teacher, Susan Dawson, to challenge Cohen for the mayor’s office. Palazzi became Dawson’s campaign manager, and the offsite parking ban and the mayor’s kowtowing to Snyder’s giant corporation became the key issues of the campaign.
Cohen was thrown out of office, and the city council repealed the offsite parking ban by a unanimous vote. Cohen blamed his loss on his support for Snyder’s parking ban. Palazzi told me several council members personally apologized to him for supporting the parking ban. Among the apologizers was council president Donald Rheault, who told a local newspaper after his change of heart that the ordinance was “not in the best interests of public safety but to serve big business.” Council member Robert Rossi publicly apologized for being “hoodwinked” by Six Flags.
(Wayne Curry, the Prince George’s County executive who was in charge when the FedExField ban was rammed through—but was out of office by the time it was repealed—was granted a spot in the team’s Ring of Fame.)
After last week’s reports on the Braves’ efforts in Cobb County, I asked Szymkowicz for his thoughts.
“This appears to be another case, like the Washington Redskins pedestrian ban, where public safety is used as a cover to force fans to park in stadium lots,” he tells me. “I hope that the adjacent property owners find an advocate to fight for their rights.”
In other words, the independent lot operators and Braves fans could really use somebody like Szymkowicz.
Snyder’s still a parking zealot, by the way. He charged $55 to park at FedExField for the recent Guns N’ Roses concert there. Szymkowicz went to the show, but parked for free nearby and walked in.
Disclosure: Dan Snyder once sued the author for writing mean things about him.