It goes without saying that trying to find a parking space after work in many Baltimore neighborhoods is an aggravating, blow-your-horn and then your brains out adventure. So, of course, someone has figured out a way to make a buck off the misery.
This ad showed up on Craigslist offering visitor passes to park in South Baltimore's Otterbein:
"Pass is good for 1 year, expires 10-31-10. 2 block walk to TONS office buildings, 1 block to the harbor. Most parking places downtown are $100 plus a month, so this worth over $1200. Email your offer."
Two city police detectives agreed to buy two laminated visitor permits for $300 each, met the reputed salesman outside the ESPN Zone on Pratt Street and arrested him. He is one of Otterbein's own, Nicholas Foster, a 26-year-old who lives with his wife on West Lee Street, and he's one of the first, if not the first, person charged with counterfeiting since the laws governing how parking permits are used were toughened two years ago.
The undercover bust demonstrates what residents have long suspected but not proven: There's a rich black market for coveted parking passes, forged or pilfered.
Otterbein is a tiny enclave nestled between Federal Hill restaurants, the two sports stadiums and the convention center. It boasts some of the most restrictive parking rules in the city - it doesn't even allow two-hour parking for visitors - simply because, as Robert R. Gisriel, the Area 8 parking representative explains, "We have fewer parking spaces than we have dwelling units."
Gisriel told me he's pleased the cops made an arrest before the fake permits flooded the streets, adding illegal parkers to the legal ones who have a hard enough time finding a place for their cars and can't park in Federal Hill to the south because it's designated Area 9.
Police say the suspect took his own visitor permit to a Staples Store in Columbia, made six colored copies and used a label maker in his Jeep Cherokee to print fake permit numbers. The laminating was done at a different Staples, on Eastern Avenue, police say. Inside the vehicle, police say, they found the label maker, a Staples receipt, a pair of scissors, an envelope with three laminated copies of passes with permit number 0700 and a nonlaminated pass with number 0794.
"I think this happens far more frequently than anybody would want to know," City Councilman William H. Cole IV told me.
I tried to reach Foster, but he has no listed telephone number, and he didn't call me after I left a note in his mail slot. There was a real estate key box hanging from the front door of his apartment at Lee and South Charles streets.
His court date is March 5, and police said he told them they were the first to respond to his ad.
I've been told the forgeries were nearly perfect and that it would've been difficult to remove them from the street.
Gisriel, an architect who has lived in Otterbein since 1982, said he plans to organize a spring tour of the neighborhood to inspect visitor passes and make sure they're legitimate.
He just finished renovating a house in the community and said he took four feet off a back kitchen to provide enough space for a car out back.
"That's how valuable off-street parking is."
Read Peter Hermann's blog at baltimoresun.com/crime