Parking Rebellion Stirs Up Oakland 

Merchants say the city's new parking fees are driving business elsewhere.

To help fill its $83 million budget gap, the Oakland City Council in July passed a slew of new parking rates and rules in an effort to generate revenue. The most fundamental changes — extending meter hours from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. and increasing hourly rates from $1.50 to $2 — have become the center of a protest by Oakland business owners, with the angriest declaring it the death sentence for local retail. Fueling their outrage are the significant hikes in violation fines, notably a double-parking ticket jumping from $30 to $75.

Infuriated business owners have banded together to criticize the council for balancing the budget on the backs of citizens. But their critics say that their complaints lack an understanding of the reality of the city's budget crisis.

Grand Lake Theater owner Allen Michaan is at the forefront of the merchant fight. He has organized community meetings at his theater aimed at mobilizing businesses against the council. For Michaan, this is not a new battle; in the late 1990s he fought for free parking under the freeway by his theater and ultimately won. For the council, he is a recurring headache.

Michaan said that his business has been down 50 percent since the change in parking rules. "And every day it is getting worse and worse," he said. "There are more and more empty parking spots in the street."

At a July 30 meeting he organized — attended by about eighty business owners and residents — Michaan complained that the council was "victimizing people who come to Oakland, because there is money in it." He handed out petitions to support a recall of the councilmembers if they do not take back the changes before their August recess ends. He said that the new parking rules are deterring shoppers from coming to Oakland, since neighboring cities such as Emeryville have much better parking options.

Michaan is supported by many other people — especially business owners on Lakeshore and Grand avenues who report significant drops in revenue along with increasingly unhappy patrons. Paula Welsh, who co-owns the Center Stage Salon, said that they have lost around twenty loyal clients who now prefer to get their hair done in cities like Walnut Creek, where they can park stress-free. Furthermore, clients are constantly getting up during appointments to feed meters. "We have to supply all the quarters," she said. With her business down almost 20 percent, Welsh said it is "very iffy" about whether she will be able to remain open.

Connie Perdomo, the owner of Connie's Cantina Mexican restaurant, closed for the first time in thirteen years to attend Michaan's community meeting. "I needed to get feedback," she said. "I wanted to know what people were thinking." Perdomo — who reported a 35 percent reduction in business — said she now is often forced to run outside to deliver orders to to-go customers waiting anxiously in double-parked cars.

Bob Jaffe, who owns the Grand Bakery, reported a 25 percent drop in patronage since he relies on "impulse buys" that are less common when parking is difficult. "I'll move up to Emeryville," he threatened. Cyrus Pishad, owner of the T-shirt shop next to the theater, said he has racked up roughly $300 worth of tickets in the last month because he constantly has to feed the meter for his car. And he said customers are doing the same. "Everyone is distracted; it is like there is a hornet's nest in the living room."

Oakland Parking Director Noel Pinto noted that while he has definitely received merchant complaints, he also has received positive feedback. "Berkeley is going to be raising their rates, and in San Francisco it is a $2 minimum," he said. "We do not see any reason why ours can't be at the minimum of another local city. ... We want to be totally transparent, and these are honest, straightforward ways of raising money to balance the budget."

There is no easy way to measure the impact on Oakland's businesses because the state does not release sales-tax reports until many months after the fact. "The tricky part is that nobody within or outside of the city can quantify what impact it is having on business," said Councilwoman Pat Kernighan, who added that she does not want to discount the public's disapproval of the changes. After all, we're in a recession, she noted. As of last Tuesday, Kernighan said she had received 129 angry e-mails over the matter — a quantity that she called "hefty."

Kernighan said she favors rolling back the 8 p.m. extension to 6 p.m. because she understands how it is hurting restaurants, although she is not confident that the council will enact that change when it reconvenes in September. She also noted that the new regulations could, paradoxically, be beneficial because the greater ability to park might actually entice more shoppers. She added that she is exploring the idea of a flat fee on cars registered in Oakland in replacement of the meter rates — an option she thinks could be less stressful.

Councilwoman Jean Quan expressed frustration over the merchant revolt. "For some people in Oakland, they should be lucky that this is the only way the recession has affected them so far," she said. "Nobody notices the things you save." She noted that, had the council not made these changes, it would have been forced to cut library operation hours further and also downsize police staffing. The $4.5 million the city expected to gain in parking revenue is equivalent to the cost of eighteen police officers.

Quan argued that the 8 p.m. extension could encourage business so that residents coming home from work do not occupy spots for diners and shoppers. She also contested residents' complaints about the more aggressive ticketing recently, saying that "people got used to the parking department being understaffed."

City Council president Jane Brunner said the complaints to her have not been overwhelming and noted that she has received positive feedback from residents who say the stricter regulations will help reduce greenhouse gases. But she also voiced regrets for the way the changes were communicated. "We didn't do a good job of announcing this and getting feedback ahead of time." Brunner said the city is going to do further analysis on whether the changes have been effective, and will be open to implementing logical adjustments.

The city already has responded to some of the outrage. Last Tuesday, it enacted a new rule that allows drivers to use the same meter receipt throughout Oakland and not just on one block, as was previously the case. And effective August 10, the city also extended parking limits on multi-space kiosks to three hours after 5 p.m. For angry merchants, it is a small victory.

Rick Raffanti, president of the Temsecal Business Improvement District, said that although he has only heard complaints from merchants, he agrees that the 8 p.m. extension may be beneficial. He said that the proposed business shutdown that Michaan organized in August was a very bad idea; most owners did not want to lose a whole day of revenue.

Pamela Drake, the director of the Lakeshore Business Improvement District and the dissenting voice at Michaan's first meeting, criticized businesses for making an enemy out of the city council and tried to educate disgruntled storeowners about the state's grip on local government. In an interview after the event, Drake — who helped fight for free parking on Saturdays around Christmas in the 1990s — said she did not want to lose senior-citizen services. "People have to wake up and understand the reality of the budget," she said.

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