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Emotional Debate Over New Parking Meters at Marathon SFMTA Hearing

3:14 PM PDT on June 18, 2010

parking_meter_small.jpgOh how San Francisco hates thee, wretched meter.
Photo: loop

Very little is as emotional in city-government policy making as parking and today's San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency hearing on the addition of 1310 new meters was no exception.

For two and a half hours, the public by-and-large lambasted the proposals to add new meters anywhere in the nine zones throughout the city, often falling back on rhetoric one might expect reserved for the trial of a violent criminal suspect. 

The SFMTA was accused of using meters to dismantle the
middle class, to make drivers feel like parasites, to repress poor people, to institute a
regressive tax, to do away with a good tradition of free parking, to
increase the risk of rape because people will have to park further from
their homes, and to generally destroy the quality of life and well being
of San Franciscans.

SFMTA hearing officer John Noland and Chief Transportation Planner Jack Fleck listened attentively to the testimony, before recommending approval of nearly every one of the staff recommendations for the new meters.

Before the hearing started, Fleck explained that the proposal for new meters was significantly more than the 300-400 meters the SFMTA adds each year to the streets, but they were being proposed for areas of high-density residential and mixed-use commercial zoning where demand for parking on-street had outstripped supply, and thus it was necessary to better manage parking by pricing it properly.

"The idea is that the parking meters will be available for you, the
visitor or residents," said Fleck. "The goal is to make parking available; it's not to make it so
restrictive that people don't come."

"This is valuable urban real estate, if we didn't have any limitations on
it it would be parked solid," he added.

Out of a room of approximately 60 people, fewer than five agreed with Fleck's argument.

Bob Planthold, a regular presence at SFMTA hearings and an advocate for the disabled and visually impaired, called driving a privilege and said, "We who do not drive, don't get a free ride on Muni. Why should those
who drive get free on-street parking?"

Ken Allen, an elderly gentleman who lives in the 1500 block on South Van Ness, said he and his neighbors supported the goal of adding meters. "It is a desirable thing to
have the meters. I feel this will be good for our block," he said. "Turnover would
be good."

"It is yet one more assault on the quality of life in San Francisco. You are intruding on our enjoyment of our oasis and complicating our lives as we seek to remain fit by swimming and boating in the Bay."

Even though Alice Rogers of South Park said she supported the goals of SFPark and had arranged to have SFMTA staff at a community meeting, she said she was frustrated with the communication process with the agency.

"I had hoped to work with your office in
advance of these hearings," she said. "We've gotten no
response to work with your group to plan the installation of these
meters. The precept of SFPark on Donald Shoup's
principles is based on cooperation."

And that would have been about all the support in the room.

As Newland and Fleck got into specific neighborhoods, people protested there was plenty of parking so meters weren't needed, while their neighbors said it was already impossible to find parking and meters were only going to add to the difficulty. Small business owners said meters would kill business and one community described a delicate parking ballet where neighbors knew each others' schedules and moved their vehicles when they knew others would leave for work or for school.

Shawn Scheuer, who owns a text messaging service called Fat Text, said he generates millions in revenue and pays hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxes to the city, but now the city wants more from its drivers. "I think the notion that people who drive cars are somehow parasites on society is ridiculous."

Courtney Clarkson was also upset that her taxes were high and transportation priorities were awry. "As taxpayers in San Francisco, especially those of us who own a house and are paying ridiculously high property taxes, everywhere we go we are being nickeled-and-dimed, or dollared and ten dollared," she said.

Noelle Birbeck, who owns a business at 55 Brady Street, said, "For me, as a small business, a parking meter is a pain."

Pedro Gonzalez, the owner of Mr. Scooter at 1776 Mission, said that he and his staff had closed the shop for the first time in 10 years to attend the hearing today. "Having parking meters just adds a
tremendous burden on us to survive," he said. "We have hundreds of people supporting our cause."

Martin Labagh, the owner of Larkins Brothers Tire Company on South Van Ness, said the proposal was unnecessary because there was no parking problem to begin with. "We have no problems in terms of parking. There is turnover
during the day," he said. "No one has ever come to
me to say that they need more parking."

Labagh added that the free spaces may look like they're at capacity, but they are turning over: "I'm out there every day for 25 years, the parking spaces do move, they
get moved from the people in the neighborhood, they know each other.
You're making them pay for parking now. You're putting a fee on people
who use them."

John Schiffer, who lives in South Park, predicted political unrest because of the meters proposed for the 200 feet of his block. "I also know if you take away that currently unregulated spot, you're going to get a backlash, you're going to get a lot of revolt. If you take away that little working class enclave, we're going to go to the polls."

Of all the areas of contention, none was more significant than the block of Beach Street between Polk and Van Ness near the Maritime Museum and the Dolphin Swimming and Boating Club. At least 30 members of the Dolphin Club testified, and despite SFMTA's Newland asking the crowd not to repeat themselves, they nearly all said some variation of the speech delivered by Naphtali Offen, a 10-year member of the club:

It is yet one more assault on the quality of life in San Francisco. You are intruding on our enjoyment of our oasis and complicating our lives as we seek to remain fit by swimming and boating in the Bay....

This is a regressive tax. I'd say stop nickel and diming us to death, but it's more like five and ten dollaring. I've lived here nearly 40 years and I'm sad to see San Francisco losing its charm as a result of greed and bad decisions....

I remember when a parking ticket didn't break the bank and when traffic citations were not a San Francisco Industry. There's something unkind about what the city is becoming...

Stop punishing the average San Franciscan. Fill your budget shortfall by assessing downtown its fair share for city servicesa nd leave us locals to enjoy what is still charming about our city.

In the end, Newland continued discussion of the block in front of the Dolphin Club and several blocks on South Van Ness in the Mission, which he said warranted more study. The SFMTA Board of Directors is expected to debate these recommendations for all the new meters in August.

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