Cars parked on Lakeshore Avenue at Lake Merritt. Credit: Amir Aziz

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Supporters and opponents of the city’s effort to install parking meters around Lake Merritt now have four additional weeks to weigh in on the contentious plan. The Oakland City Council decided on Tuesday to hold off making a final decision until June 21.

The delay came about because of two significant developments. 

On May 11, the city’s Parks and Recreation Advisory Commission recommended new amendments to the city’s plan in order to address concerns that the meters will have racially disparate impacts, preventing some groups from using the lake as much. The commission asked the council to direct parking revenue earned by lake meters to other parks, to make the parking metering a one-year pilot program with a six-month review, and to collect data to find out whether adding the meters will do what the city claims: improve traffic congestion, lower crime, and not prevent lower-income people and people of color from visiting and using the lake.

The Oakland Department of Transportation (OakDOT) also recently released data from a new survey of nearly 2,500 Lake Merritt visitors compiled over the previous month that found almost 79% disagreed with the metering project. The survey also found that most people don’t trust the city’s financial intentions, with some fearing the “money generated will get lost.” The original plan, devised by city staff, earmarked the parking meter money to go into the city’s general fund. 

According to the city, the lake parking meters would generate $1.5 million in the first year and approximately $1.7 million each year after.

District 3 Councilmember Carroll Fife, who represents the west side of the lake, said on Tuesday that when people express so much concern over an issue, it is a sign that a “deeper analysis” needs to happen. “I would never be comfortable if 70% of a population is moving in opposition to something that the council is proposing,” she said. 

District 2 Councilmember Nikki Fortunato Bas, who represents the east side of the lake, recommended further review of the survey and the parks commission’s recommendations. She said she would call a town hall meeting in the next month for community members to discuss parking meter pros and cons. 

“We want our public spaces to be more accessible,” said Bas. “My goal is to ensure that all of the parks are grounded in equity, sustainability, and belonging. If you’re a resident, you want to feel like you belong.”

City officials acknowledged during Tuesday’s meeting that adding parking meters, just like adding more police around the lake, has been viewed by some communities as an effort to exclude them from the park.

“We have to recognize that this is a theme that even if that is not our intention, it is the perceived impact from the people that we’ve surveyed,” said Joe DeVries, an assistant city administrator, at last week’s parks commission meeting. 

Many residents said in survey responses that the addition of meters without extensive community outreach made them feel “powerless.” They also said the flex metering system in which parking prices rise during periods of higher demand would mean the lake would be one more place where “poor and struggling people” in Oakland could no longer go.  

According to the city, the flex prices could rise as high as $4 an hour during the lake’s busiest times, which are mostly on weekends.

Under the city’s original plan, the new meters would require people to pay every two hours, up to four times a day. This could lead to multiple violations and hundreds of dollars in fines or, as one respondent noted, make people they are being rushed to leave. 

“It’s like someone has the ability to set how long I enjoy the Lake. This is frustrating,” a survey responded wrote.

The city says meters will solve many problems, from crowding and noise to accessibility

City staff said the new meters would lead to more “cycling” of people and easier enforcement through license plate-reading technology that doesn’t require police to be present to cite a person for non-payment. According to Michael Ford, a planner with OakDOT, the cycling that meters encourage actually provides more people with an opportunity to park near the lake and enjoy its amenities. 

“The most important thing in my ten years of experience is recognizing the importance of providing access to areas. And paid parking has been the single most important way in which visitors and customers are able to access our commercial districts,” Ford said last week. 

Previous attempts to handle congestion at the lake have involved closing down Lakeshore Avenue and parts of other lakeside streets. Residents in support of the meters say street closures caused traffic issues in the area, including losing access to bus routes. 

Leeann Alameda, a member of the Lake Merritt Community Alliance, a neighborhood group, said that the meters would improve car flow and “create more order.” With more people moving in and out of parking spaces, the thinking goes, fewer people will be able to double park and emergency vehicles can access the area. 

Privacy fears around the pay-by-plate technology, which allows city staff to scan a plate and provide a ticket without getting out of the car, also came up in yesterday’s meeting. According to the city, staff has not enforced parking rules in recent years because of threats. OakDOT sees the license plate scanning technology as a safer option for its staff. In a previous story, we noted that the city’s privacy commission determined the system used is relatively safe, though in recent years the vendor’s database has been compromised.

At the end of Tuesday’s meeting, the council asked OakDOT to come up with a report about how the city can use the revenue from lakeside metering to help black vendors and how net revenue overall could be allocated to offset financial disparities faced by low-income residents who want to park at the lake. 

If the council votes for the metering plan in late June with amendments, DeVries estimated it would take the city eight to 12 weeks to get the parking meters installed. After a month of parking warnings, the city would start collecting money from meters and would start ticketing cars, in late September. 

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.