A person enjoys the final moments of sun on a Saturday evening on the East shore of Lake Merritt. July 28, 2020. Credit: Pete Rosos

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On Monday, the Oakland City Council approved an array of rules—some new, some extensions of previous efforts—to address concerns about crowds, traffic, noise, and other impacts at Lake Merritt. The new regulations include traffic control measures, parking enforcement on weekends, and a stepped-up enforcement against illegal sidewalk sales of alcohol and cannabis. Park ambassadors will walk the lake on weekends to help visitors understand the new rules, and to address loud music and other complaints. The city will also install more public toilets and handwashing stations.

At the same time, the city will make space for street vendors to continue operating, and to ensure the lake remains a space where people from all backgrounds can gather.

“The lake is a gem. It’s a cultural hub that is so important to all Oaklanders,” said City Council President Nikki Fortunato Bas at yesterday’s meeting.

The changes to the city’s lake rules were spearheaded by Bas who represents District 2, along with extensive input from the Parks and Rec Advisory Commission, street vendors, neighborhood groups, city staff, and a couple thousand Oakland residents who answered a city survey.

An overarching goal is to support street vendors—who have flocked to the lake in large numbers during the pandemic as jobs and incomes have disappeared—and to minimize large gatherings and impacts like noise, litter, and traffic, which neighborhood residents along Lakeshore Avenue say have negatively impacted their lives.

The new rules and programs will go into effect beginning Friday, April 2 through Labor Day Weekend, but the council still has to set aside funding. A vote to appropriate funds is expected at the council’s meeting on Monday, April 12.

The new lake regulations and programs will be handled by a number of departments, including police, transportation, public works, and parks, recreation and youth development.

Although the use of police overtime has been criticized recently because it has caused deficits for the city, most of the council approved using police overtime for enforcement until they can add it to the city’s budgeted spending.

To pay for additional enforcement and programs around the lake, the councilmembers also approved exploring a dedicated funding source such as a parking benefit district.

For those visiting the lake, starting this weekend there will be an increased police presence, including multiple police officers who will help enforce traffic measures, assist in the enforcement of vending and parking regulations, and address noise complaints. For holiday weekends like Memorial Day and Juneteenth, additional police officers will be assigned to the lake.

The city will be installing no parking signs in various spots around the lake and enforcing rules against parking that blocks people’s driveways, or in the median or other areas not designated.

Municipal code enforcement officers will cite anyone who is selling cannabis and alcohol around the lake, and police will assist them. The city’s plan is to move street vendors off of Lakeshore Avenue and other areas where vending isn’t permitted, and have them operate on El Embarcadero through the “Black Solidarity Market,” a group set up by some of the existing lake vendors.

The city will also pilot a “Parks Ambassadors” program through which five ambassadors will walk the lake for six hours on weekends and holidays “to engage lake visitors regarding regulations, alternative parking areas, noise standards regarding amplified music, and to distribute other helpful information,” according to city staffers.

The council also discussed finding other locations throughout Oakland to host events as a means to support street vendors and lessen foot traffic to the lake. “Vendors should be able to earn a living and the city needs to figure out how we can support that,” Bas said. “We need to find locations across our city for a number of events that can help people enjoy themselves whether it’s at the lake, DeFremery Park, Akoma Market, Peralta Hacienda.”

According to the city’s survey of residents, there is broad support for assisting vendors while instituting traffic control measures and addressing homelessness, crime, and trash pickup around the lake.

Over half of the survey respondents were white, though racial groups across the board expressed support for vendors and more measures for minimizing the large gatherings.

Several lake residents called in to express frustrations over the large crowds, noise, litter and other impacts.

Greg Anderson, a Lakeshore resident, pleaded with the council to not only adopt Bas’s recommendations, but recognize that lake neighbors aren’t only white people.

“People of color live here too, and we feel like our existence is being written out of this narrative,” said Anderson, who identified himself as Black.

Others like Jennifer Findlay expressed a desire to coexist with vendors and make sure they get the support they need. “I support that things are chaotic and in need of some change,” Findlay said, “but I do support the events being held there.”

Ricky Rodas is a member of the 2020 graduating class of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. He has spent the last two years reporting on immigrant communities in the Bay Area as a reporter for the hyperlocal news sites Oakland North, Mission Local, and Richmond Confidential. Rodas, who is Salvadoran American and bilingual, joins us through a partnership with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and communities. Rodas will be reporting on small and immigrant-owned businesses in Oakland.