Oakland Merchants Claim Higher Parking Rates Are Hurting Business

2807783678_8d076df887_b.jpgAre parking meters to blame for Oakland's struggling economy? Flickr photo: mlinksva
As Oakland businesses struggle to weather the downturn, parking policy has become a rallying point as well as a scapegoat for the long-term suburban exodus.

Allen Michaan, owner of the Grand Lake Theater in Oakland, wants to recall every member of the Oakland City Council. Their offense, he says, is raising the parking meter rates by 50 cents to two dollars an hour, extending weekday enforcement to 8 p.m., and authorizing more aggressive enforcement.

Since the new parking policies went into place, Michaan says his theater has seen "a dramatic decrease in business."

"I see our attendance dropping on a daily basis," said Michaan. "It's an attack on the community."

At a meeting of about 100 business owners and residents yesterday at Michaan's grandly restored movie house, about a dozen business leaders and another dozen residents spoke their minds about Oakland's recent parking policy changes. Many business owners started by expressing concerns about the parking policy's effects on their customers, and built up to broader complaints about Oakland's anti-business political climate, a lack of safety, and anxiety about losing customers to surrounding suburbs.

Calling the policies "anti-business," an Oakland real estate agent said Oakland should remove parking restrictions and make its new motto "You're free to go about Oakland."

Many of the merchants in attendance were skeptical about transit's importance to their businesses.

"[Oakland councilmember] Nancy Nadel was quoted in the newspaper today saying, 'well, if the rates are high, then people will stop driving their cars and they'll go to mass transit to the grocery store,'" said Oakland merchant Jim Forsyth. "That's like, who's her economic advisor, Britney Spears?"

"I'd like to see an old Nancy come up here with an artificial hip and carry three days' groceries home up these hills. It can't be done."

One resident, who did not identify himself, spoke in favor of the parking rate increases. "If you want to lower the rates and encourage squatting, go ahead, but the problem is you do it at your own peril," he said. "I encourage the city council, and I encourage you to think about this, that we raise the rates to a market level, so there's some available spaces for people to park."

As the man left the microphone, Michaan sought to counter his argument. "I have to comment to that. Sorry, why don't you go drive around what is now our deserted shopping neighborhood."

"It's a recession," the man exclaimed as he left the theater to a chorus of boos.

For Oakland to compete with surrounding communities like Emeryville, it needs free parking, Michaan said. "Perhaps if we had two-hour free parking everywhere … like Petaluma does, instead of $51 million in sales tax revenues, we might have $100 million in sales tax revenues, and we'd be $20 million ahead of the game."

"It should all be free. The most successful communities are those that have free parking," Michaan said after the open house.

Asked whether he considered San Francisco unsuccessful, Michaan noted that "San Francisco is a highly dense city."

"Look at how successful the business districts are in Walnut Creek and Pleasant Hill, and that's a really good example," said Michaan, who believed increased sales taxes could pay for the lost parking revenue.

The Oakland Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce shared Michaan's concerns about the new parking policies. "We advised City Council that it was a bad decision," said Joe Haraburda, the chamber's president and chief executive officer.

In San Francisco, some merchants are beginning to favor extended meter enforcement hours, because it leads to greater turnover, as Streetsblog has written about before. The San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, though still opposed to congestion pricing, also likes the idea of extended enforcement for the same reason.

None of this seemed to matter to Michaan, who is asking fellow businesses to close next Thursday to draw attention to the issue. "Maybe if we had a successful recall, and we forced a new election, and a slate of progressive candidates stepped forward on the platform of, 'we want people to come back to Oakland. We want to have a reinvigorated community. We're going to have 2-hour free parking for everyone, and not charge parking tickets.'"

Michaan said he'd be willing to take money from the police department to keep parking rates lower, though security was a frequent concern for business owners at the meeting. Joe Martinez, who owns a liquor store owner in Oakland's Fruitvale neighborhood, said he even finds himself driving to the suburbs to shop because walking in his neighborhood feels unsafe. "I live within three blocks of Walgreens," Martinez said, "but I don't feel safe going there."