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."

  • jwb

    It should be extremely easy to test this theory. Are the parking spaces now more frequently vacant?

  • patrick

    “I live within three blocks of Walgreens,” Martinez said, “but I don’t feel safe going there.”

    That says it all right there! It’s not the parking, it’s the crime.

  • When I was in Berkeley, I would often either walk (gulp, yes it was a distance) or take the bus to Grand Lake. Never drove. Ever. Business are not doing well because people are broke. Making meters free will just encourage squatting and/or they will be as empty as they are now. Driving a car isn’t free people.

  • chris

    What’s the data on lost business? Really, would someone buy a gallon of gas to drive to the next town and back instead of paying for parking? I’m sure the City is more than willing to conduct some fairly easy studies to verify the merchant complaints.
    The bum hip rap is kind of bogus, since bum hip drivers are usually accompanied by handicap parking placards, and therefore, have special rights and privileges. It’s been several years since I’ve seen the sea of empty parking spots near the Theatre. Merchants beware of what you ask for. I have a sneaking suspision that they can boost business from foot and bike traffic, and, yes, greater turnover in car parking. Mr Michaan has a penchant for re-calling a lot of things, most of which only stir emotions, not revolution. Spend $$ on ped and bike friendly facilities, not recalls.

  • Oakland ain’t Petaluma. Unless you’re in Jack London Square, and then yep, you might as well be in Petaluma. I actually like Petaluma, they have a decent bus station even though its segregated from the downtown streets. But these guys have it all wrong if they think the best thing is to recreate a Petaluma-like situation in a much denser urban place.

    Free parking now! Cheaper, highly subsidized cars (cash for clunkers)! Like the nonsense of Obama Birthers bemoaning the racial and ethnic change in America via Obama-as-synecdoche, these are the last desperate gasps of small c conservatives facing the death pangs of automobility. These claims just do not make sense, and they are desperate as hell.

  • The Oakland Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce did more than just “advise the Council” they don’t like parking fees – they sent out a mass email lying about the fees and blaming Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan for them, even though she didn’t make the proposal. It’s very disappointing that the Oakland Chamber is consistently anti-transit, and may be one reason why other Oakland business groups like the Builders’ Alliance and the Chinatown Chamber are starting and growing.

  • bob

    HMMM. That’s funny.

    Michaan’s own website advertises 4 hours of free parking just across the street.

    “It’s an attack on the community.”


    This guy is full of hot air, among other things.

  • Have the parking changes been in place long enough to make a difference one way or another? How does anyone believe, at this point in the world, that things like parking can remain free? We have to pay for space to live, space to shop… why is it so hard for people to accept that they will have to pay for space to park? I drive, and I have never had a problem with paying for parking- in places where parking is too expensive or difficult, I take a bus or ride my bike or walk. This is not rocket science. If paying 50 cents more for an hour of parking means you can’t shop, then the reality is you couldn’t shop in the first place.

  • That’s so disappointing. I lived right behind Grand Lake Theater and there are so many people walking from their homes to shop, watch movies, etc. I wish Michaan and crew would do legitimate access surveys of their clientele to see how many arrive by what mode. Go down to Lakeshore or Grand Ave any morning or evening and see how many of the shoppers at the local stores drove there. I’d bet it isn’t the majority. I think the numbers would surprise him.

    It’s doubly disappointing because Michaan constantly used his marquee to declaim the abuses of Bush, Cheney, etc, when they were in power. Now he’s endorsing backwards parking policy? Free parking is never the turnaround for a city and comparing Lake Merritt/Lakeshore to the mall-ified Walnut Creek and Pleasant Hill is bad reasoning.

    He should be looking at Pasadena and Redwood City for inspiration. Don Shoup, where are you when we need you?

  • Mike

    Michaan has officially lost his credentials as a “Progressive.”

    Car-hugging is not revolutionary.

  • Michaan (who doesn’t live in Oakland) doesn’t even have the authority to start a recall petition. That a bunch of business men who don’t even live in our city should try to eliminate OUR elected officials is ridiculous. The subtext in all of this is that they don’t like the kind of people who don’t drive everywhere. They’d rather have drive-in/drive-out suburbanites at their businesses then the good citizens of Oakland.

    btw. I was at a sold out show at the Grand just a few days ago (though I don’t think I’ll be frequenting it now). If anyone’s got a list of businesses supporting this so I can avoid them, I’d appreciate it.

  • I lived above Grand Avenue for a while and always walked down because it was difficult to park there.

  • East Lake Biker

    “[Michaan] is asking fellow businesses to close next Thursday to draw attention to the issue.”

    Why is it every time there is a “protest” it defeats the intended message? If all the shops on Grand/Lakeshore closed there would be no income for them that day. Plus, it would piss off customers. If the new rates actually drove (pun intended) away customers wouldn’t it make things worse? How would Michaan get Trader Joe’s or Walgreens to close?

    I want to know how drive-in customers feel about the new rates. Would they be discouraged to shop in town? This would be easy enough to find out, just position survey takers at the pay stations.

  • Jym

    =v= I also lived in the area, and spent a lot of time (and money) on the eminently walkable Grand Avenue and Lakeshore Avenue. The dead zones in those commercial districts are the parts dominated by Interstate 580’s onramp and offramp, and the few businesses that were build suburban-style, with a sea of parking around it. (That is, in fact, precisely what’s wrong with Walgreens.)

    Cars are the death of the area, not the life. Best to focus on alternatives rather than whining about motorists actually paying a bit more of the costs they inflict for a change.

  • CT

    it is not the $2 each hour the city is looking for. it is the parking tickets. if there are no meter. how can the city give tickets? I personally shop away from the metered shopping area. I am willing to pay more on gas and the $2 parking. but don’t want to think about if I will get a ticket if I am late.

  • tommy

    I want to stick up a little for the businesses. relatively high rates for parking only work when you have so much demand that people must circle around looking for a spot. we all have to be reasonable about this. the neighborhood does attract some people from outside the area, so until there are parking fees at all or most of the commercial strips/shopping centers in oakland, berkeley, and emeryville, the situation is unfair.

    in a dream world, we’d have a regional government and it would be able to force all commercial operators to charge for parking. (and residential parking would be “unbundled” and charged for too!) until then, we need to establish good public transit, wide sidewalks and safe street crossings, narrow streets where cars must slow down, and a big campaign including signage and street paint to encourage more bicyles to take full lanes…also political pressure to never approve another suburban-style shopping center or mall… all this must be done FIRST. otherwise, you’re putting most neighborhood commercial areas at a disadvantage by discouraging car drivers.

    it sounds weird, but many car drivers DO think 2 bucks an hour for parking, and the occasional risk of accidentally going over time and getting a ticket, make it better to just go somewhere else, even if it’s a few miles away. even though they’ll plop down 4 bucks for an espresso drink.

  • It would also be nice if there were better bus access. I’m over there every once in a while and usually take the 12. But what happens is that the headways are so long that I have to plan around them instead of being able to plan around my own schedule. Those merchants would do well to increase biking, walking, and transit access, they would be surprised by the results.

  • Shoup (http://shoup.bol.ucla.edu/) claims a vacancy rate of about 15% is ideal… the first step here is to measure whether we were overshooting or undercutting that.

    The city of Oakland should be doing regular surveys of the parking vacancy rate. If they’re not doing them, then this Michaan fellow should do a few himself to back up all this talk with some numbers. It’s quite possible the meter rates are too high. If so, let’s see the proof.

  • ab

    The higher parking costs would not have discouraged me from visiting the Grand Lake. However, Michaan’s hissy-fit will probably keep me away indefinitely.

  • JK

    The city could have saved itself some grief by carefully measuring parking occupancy before the higher rate and after, and doing shopper surveys asking how people got there. Invariably retailers grossly overestimate the number of people coming by car — because they themselves drive and want to park in front of their stores. The city could also arrived at the same goal by tying meter rates to target occupancy rates — say 85%. Lastly, the city could approach merchants about creating a Parking Benefit District and plowing some meter money back into streetscape improvements that draw more customers. There is a well defined play book on all of this laid out by Donald Shoup and put into action in dozens of Parking Benefits in California and the West Coast. The nearest to Oakland is Redwood City, if council wants to take a field trip. (Really) lastly, the SFTA just announced that SF is creating Parking Benefit Districts across the city.

  • len raphael

    tommy makse a point that most of the posters here are oblivious to. yes, its obvious that theoreticaly charging market rates for street parking is a good thing to do. it’s the timing of this that’s bad.

    you don’t need to commission a study to know that if you raise the cost of driving, you remove disposable income that could be spent at the destination retail store.

    because of the recession, because of oakland crime, costco, large chain stores, pending mandatory health insurance benefits, etc. small retailers are a rare breed on the brink of extinction. they know it and are very very worried.

    how many of your posters have ever run a small business and worried about covering their employees paychecks?

    if you have, you’ll have more empathy for the merchants whose cute little stores you want to survive and you’ll figure out a way to raise parking revenues less abruptly.


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