Cars park along Lakeshore Avenue next to Lake Merritt, part of the area where new parking meters could be added. Credit: Amir Aziz

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Updated on March 28: The Oakland City council moved the parking meter item from the April 19 meeting to the May 3 meeting.

If you’re used to free parking on streets near Lake Merritt, including on Sundays, you may soon have to come up with a different plan, or find a few extra bucks. This past Tuesday, the Oakland City Council’s Public Works Committee approved adding parking meters to two miles of streets around the lake.

The proposed changes are based on recommendations from the Oakland Department of Transportation. OakDOT staff wrote in a report that the lake would benefit from added parking meters that are active seven days a week because it will reduce parking demand and increase fares to help pay for park maintenance. According to the city, it cost $25,000 a week to keep Lake Merritt streets clean with police, maintenance crews, portable toilets, and more. 

The streets around Lake Merritt that will receive parking meters are Bellevue Avenue from Perkins Street to Grand Avenue, and the entirety of Lakeshore Avenue, starting at MacArthur Boulevard through where Lakeshore becomes Lake Merritt Boulevard all the way to Jackson Street. A map of the changes can be seen below.  

If the city council passes a resolution next month, new pay-by-plate parking meters will be added in the streets around Lake Merritt, most of them on Lakeshore Avenue. Map by Jose Fermoso

The Oakland City Council is scheduled to vote on the changes at its meeting on April 19, giving residents one month to reach out to their district representatives or directly to OakDOT. 

If approved, it will likely take the city months to install new parking meters around the lake. When they are ready, the meters are expected to be in use from 12 p.m. to 8 p.m. Currently, lake parking is free for up to three hours at a time until 6 pm. According to the city, installing new meters will cost $250,000 for labor and materials.

Many streets near Lake Merritt already have parking meters, including those highlighted in purple in the map below.

There are dozens of parking meters, as seen in the gray circles above, in the streets surrounding Lake Merritt. Source: City of Oakland

While the current average hourly rate of meters in Oakland is $2 an hour, the new meters will enforce a flex pricing scheme in which rates are lower in the morning and late afternoons when there is less parking demand. Prices will rise during lunch and evening hours, as well as during events and busy weekends. OakDOT has not said what the range of pricing it will “flex into,” but other cities’ prices have ranged from under $2 to $6, and sometimes even more per hour. 

The parking meter changes were prompted by years of complaints from Lake Merritt residents upset at park visitors playing music into the night, littering, and large parties, especially on the weekends. 

In August 2020, Oakland’s Parks and Recreation Advisory Commission recommended the city “enforce stricter parking limits for all lake users, including ticketing and potentially towing,” as a means of reducing crowding and other issues at the lake. The city’s Lake Merritt Working Group, made up of eight Oakland agencies, including the Oakland Police Department, also recently recommended installing parking meters.

Lia Azul Salaverry, a staffer of councilmember Nikki Bas’ office who called into the public works meeting to encourage community engagement from Lake visitors, said the meter proposal is in line with Bas’ policy directives including that more parking turnover spurred by the meters would help alleviate traffic. 

Opponents say parking enforcement gentrifies the lake and poses privacy issues

Many of the city’s current meters do not use flex pricing or rely on inputting license plates. Credit: Amir Aziz

Several residents who spoke during Tuesday’s committee meeting said the parking changes will price out Black residents and amount to gentrification of the lake.

“You are working hard to make sure Black people do not go to that lake,” said Assata Olugbala. “And guess what, we’re going to fight you.”

Another resident, Jennifer Findlay, said she is concerned about what the parking rules changes will do to street vendors who have set up along Lakeshore Avenue and other parts of the lake during the pandemic. “We are all members of the community. What are we doing for the black vendors around the lake?” 

Lake Merritt has always been a contested space in Oakland. During the pandemic, increasing numbers of people flocked to the parks ringing the lake for exercise and to socialize. Street vendors set up in large numbers along Lakeshore Avenue, and parties and other events, as well as a perceived uptick in crime and littering, caused neighbors who live near the lake to complain that their quality of life was being harmed and they felt unsafe.

The city created a vendor pilot program in 2020 to organize some of the street merchants and lessen conflicts between entrepreneurs, neighbors, and visitors. Many of the vendors ultimately were moved to an area not too far away from the lake, near the small library, where they could sell their wares. A contractor who studied the pilot program had several recommendations, including that the city should find a way to ensure that vendors had a place to park.

In a report looking into crowd issues at Lake Merritt last year, OakDOT said that parking officers were “verbally threatened when attempting to issue citations.” One of the ways the city aims to enforce parking rules without its staff getting into confrontations with visitors is by using new pay-by-plate meter technology. 

OakDOT parking planner Michael Ford said that parking enforcement crews will be able to cite cars who have not paid for the meter without getting out of their car by using a license plate reader camera. This will allow them to check on more cars per hour. 

“It allows our enforcement technicians a safer route to enforcing parking without direct conflict,” Ford said. 

Pay-by-plate tech is the latest version of the single-terminal parking kiosks installed around Oakland in recent years. Those terminals print out receipts, which are then placed on car window sills for each portion time is paid. But pay-by-plate parking meters ask customers to input their car’s license plate and don’t provide a receipt to post in a car’s window. Instead, they send you a text message, as seen in the video below. 

Opponents of this type of payment method say it’s a way for the city to “double-dip” parking monetization. Whereas payment on old parking meters allowed people to save money if someone left before their time ran out, pay-by-plate restarts the clock on parking for every new user. 

Digital inputting and parking receipts have also been seen as a challenge for older people that are not tech-savvy.

Inputting license plates into meters, according to privacy advocates, is also a concern. Tracey Rosenberg of the group Oakland Privacy told The Oaklandside her biggest worry is where the license plate data and personal payment information ends up. 

“These types of payment methods connect to your credit cards, which are linked to people. What’s the information flow? Does the Oakland Police Department have access to this? Does the vendor?” she asked.

Last year, the city’s parking vendor, ParkMobile Inc., experienced a data breach in which hackers made off with people’s personal information. The company and city warned Oakland residents and others who used the system and may have had some of their information stolen.

Oakland Privacy Commission Chair Brian Hofer told The Oaklandside that the privacy commission reviewed OakDOT’s license plate scanning technology plans in 2019 and the City Council approved policies that are supposed to ensure data is only retained for a short period of time, along with other protections. 

“For plates that are scanned but no citation is issued, all data is deleted within twenty-four hours. For plates that are scanned and also cited, data may be retained for ninety days to allow for appeals of the citation,” Hofer said. 

Based on this policy, said Hofer, data that OakDOT parking crew sees should not be connected to police data. 

City staff and lakeside residents say parking meters will make the lake more accessible

OakDOT’s Ford said adding parking meters offers an opportunity to increase funding for park maintenance. As noted previously in The Oaklandside, Oakland spends only $19 per resident on parks, one of the lowest investments in the nation for a major city. Over the last decade, parking revenues have also gone down significantly. In 2021, Oakland had the lowest number of parking violations in more than a decade, with 259,026, also bringing in the lowest amount of revenue.

Communications professional Isaac Kos-Read, who has worked on behalf of city and state governments and is a member of Oakland’s Parks and Recreation Advisory Commission, told The Oaklandside that impromptu vending is an activity that is not necessarily compatible with public parks like Lake Merritt and. 

“Vending is an inherently private, commercial activity. Parks with grassy areas and bricks are not set up to handle the intensive use of commercial activity,” he said. Kos-Read believes that improved parking rules and enforcement will make the lake more accessible for a greater number of people. 

Jose Fermoso

Jose Fermoso is a 2021 Knight-Wallace Fellow reporting on traffic and road safety for The Oaklandside. His work covering tech and culture has appeared in publications including The Guardian, The New York Times, and One Zero. Born and raised in Oakland, Jose has also worked on the bestselling unauthorized biography of Apple's Jony Ive and led all content initiatives at App Academy, the top U.S. coding boot camp. He is the host and creator of the El Progreso podcast, a new show featuring in-depth narrative stories and interviews about and from the perspective of the Latinx community.