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Oakland City Council Delays Parking Vote for Two Weeks

9:48 AM PDT on September 23, 2009

2807783678_8d076df887_b.jpgOakland's electronic parking meters. Flickr photo: mlinksva

The Oakland City Council voted early this morning to delay action on proposed parking changes until its next meeting. After three hours of discussion that spilled well beyond midnight, a proposal to roll back parking meter enforcement from 8 p.m. to 6 p.m. was narrowly defeated, despite calls for immediate action from dozens of merchants who attended the meeting.

In late June, the council voted to raise the parking meter rates by 50 cents to two dollars an hour, extend weekday meter enforcement to 8 p.m., and authorize more aggressive enforcement. Those changes have angered some residents and sparked cries from merchants that the new policies are hurting business.

Several councilmembers were skeptical of the options presented for making up the $900,000 budget gap the rolled-back enforcement hours would create, and requested a more detailed proposal from staff members. "Without an actual proposal for people to speak to, it's hard to say that staff will just come up with something," said Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan.

The rejected proposal, presented by Councilmembers Jean Quan, Patricia Kernighan and Council President Jane Brunner, would have made up for the gap with a mixture of a crackdown on handicap placard abuse, installation of parking meters in new areas, money saved from automating payment at city parking garages, opening up some city garages for paid residential use at night, and selling ad space on the back of parking receipts. Staff would have been directed to come up with ideas to cover the rest of the gap, which was still estimated at over $300,000.

Everyone on the council was open to rolling back the enforcement hours to 7 p.m. or 6 p.m., but the resolution ultimately lost due to the uncertainty of the replacement funding. "I am not wedded to the parking meter times so much that I would be unwilling to let them be rolled back," said Councilmember Desley Brooks, who, along with Kaplan and Nancy Nadel, voted against the proposal. "What I am wedded to is a real budget that makes sense for this city."

The vote came after a long, sometimes heated public comment period with rowdy applause. 

"What kind of city government attacks its own residents in this fashion just to raise revenues?" asked Allen Michaan, owner of the Grand Lake Theater and the most visible leader of the parking protests. "Metering rates should be reduced to 50 cents an hour, to compete with our neighbors, or better yet, meters should be eliminated all together." Michaan also said meter enforcement should be reduced not back to 6 p.m. but to 5 p.m.

Michaan and others claimed they had seen huge declines in business since the parking enforcement changes were made in early July. Several members of the public did contest the notion that cheaper parking was the key to better business, however.

"Free evening parking doesn't actually help businesses," said Jonathan Bair, chair of the Oakland Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee. Grand Lake neighborhood resident Ralph Cook said the council should look to the advice of UCLA parking guru Donald Shoup, and base pricing on demand. In one of the evening's few humorous moments, Cook was interrupted by Michaan, who wanted to announce that the parking lot across the street would be closing soon. "Can I have my Kanye West 35 seconds back?" asked Cook.

He was granted his 35 seconds of lost speaking time back, and evidently the council listened to his advice on Shoup as well: there was broad support for a long-term parking study that would incorporate demand-based parking. "A lot of cities are looking at parking and setting pricing on a demand basis," said Brooks, referring to programs like SFpark in San Francisco.

Kaplan called for a Shoupian approach as well. "If all the parking spots are full, making them cheaper doesn't make the problem better, it makes it worse," said Kaplan. "We need a real study that looks at demand modeling."

At their next meeting in two weeks, the council will vote on commissioning a 45-day study to identify principles that should guide parking strategy in the city, in addition to voting on whether to roll back enforcement from 8 p.m. to 6 or 7 p.m.

There was also agreement among most councilmembers that the anger about increasing parking enforcement originated from how the changes were made, not the changes themselves. "I think that what has made people the angriest," said Kernighan, "is the fact that we changed the rules and we did not properly notify people before it happened. They felt like they were being tricked."

Quan, who supported the initial resolution to roll back enforcement to 6 p.m. even without a full plan for covering the funding gap it would create, seemed to lapse briefly into skepticism about the uproar. "Whether it's true or not" that the parking changes have caused a major decline in business, Quan said, "it's what people believe. I can't tell you how many emails I've had from people." Then again, Quan said, "there's like 300 free parking spaces within a block of the Grand Lake Theater," which the city provided several years ago at Michaan's request. Quan said she wondered if the decline in business was partially "because of the publicity and the uproar" about parking fines.

"People all over the Bay Area think if you go to the Grand Lake Theater you'll get a ticket."

The City Council ultimately is placed between an angry group of business owners and the equally daunting menace of making cuts or finding revenue elsewhere. Even an offhand suggestion earlier in the week that the funds come from the city's animal shelter program was enough to bring in three people who spoke passionately against any further cuts to that program.

The reaction that even an offhand suggestion brought was an indication of just how hard finding money elsewhere might be, Kaplan said. "I think what happened with the animal shelter was very telling," she said. "Without an actual proposal for people to speak to, it's hard to say that staff will just come up with something."

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