Signs for new parking meters at Lake Merritt have already been installed on Lakeshore Avenue as of Jan. 31, 2023. Credit: Jose Fermoso

Six months after the Oakland City Council approved a one-year pilot for parking meters at Lake Merritt, the city began installation this week. 

According to city spokesperson Jean Walsh, Oakland doesn’t have an exact timeline for the meters’ installation, but the work will be done “as soon as possible.” 

During Council hearings in 2022, OakDOT staffer Michael Ford noted that there will be 20 kiosks around Lake Merritt where people will be required to pay for parking with a credit card or cash. Visitors will also be able to pay through the ParkMobile app. 

The meters will cover Bellevue Avenue from Perkins Street to Grand Avenue, all of Lakeshore Avenue from Eastshore Park at Macarthur Boulevard to the Lake Merritt Amphitheater, and Lake Merritt Boulevard from the lake’s pedestrian bridge to the Main Library on Oak Street. 

Lake visitors will have to pay to park between the hours of 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and from 12 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Sundays. Prices will increase during the busiest times of day and fall with low demand. The city has not revealed the exact amounts yet, but other cities’ “flex plans” range from $2 to $6 an hour. The city’s current average hourly parking rate is $2 an hour. 

Oakland is spending $250,000 to install the kiosks. The meters are expected to earn $1.5 million in their first year of operation and $1.7 million every year thereafter. 

One of the reasons OakDOT supports metered parking at the lake is to raise revenue that will support park maintenance and safety programs. Residents have complained of trash due to littering, homeless camps, loud parties, and crime. City officials also say the meters will make the lake more accessible to more people by forcing more cars to cycle through spaces instead of holding on to a space for hours at a time.

The city says in six months, the Parks and Recreation Advisory Commission and the Life Enrichment Committee will review data about who is receiving parking tickets in addition to traffic and crime data to determine if the meters are equitably achieving their access and safety goals.

Gentrification concerns

Some Oakland residents believe the new parking meters will actually gentrify the lake, making it less accessible for low-income visitors. For generations, the grassy areas around Lake Merritt have served as a haven for all residents, especially low-income people of color who don’t have access to other forms of entertainment or free outdoor spaces. 

The Oaklandside spoke to some lake visitors Monday evening to ask what they think about the parking meters. All of them were surprised by the news and felt the meters will make the lake less accessible to people of color. 

Kevin Allen, a Black photographer who lives in the neighborhood, told us he understands the lake needs improved cleaning services and that the influx of people sometimes leads to loud music, which can irritate some neighbors. But he said those worries are often overblown and should not override the community benefit the lake provides. 

“Loud music is not an every night thing. But there are going to be a lot of loud complaints if the goal is to drive people away from the lake,” said Allen. “I’m sure that’s gonna cause another uproar. I was there for the Barbecue Becky situation, or whatever you wanna call it,” he said, referring to protests about access to Lake Merritt in 2018 after a white woman called the police on a Black family having a barbecue on Lakeshore Avenue. 

Lee Levy, who identified as Black and low-income, said it is “sad” the city is adding meters to the lake. He was sitting quietly in his car on Bellevue Avenue listening to a podcast about the Memphis police killings with tears in his eyes. He said he often comes to the lake to park by himself for quiet contemplation.

“It’s really unfortunate and ironic, public access goes to those who are able to pay. Gentrification has such an overwhelming effect. You’re subjected to the consequences of the governmental process. It feels like it’s an opportunity to pad someone’s pocket,” he said.

Levy said that forcing people to pay on the weekends “adds insult to injury” because it’s usually the time when most people are in the area to meet with others. He said he would likely look for another local park he can drive to for free in the future. 

Sofia, a young Latina who lives outside the neighborhood and was playing with kids at the playground, said the meters will make it harder for people who can’t afford to live by the lake to go there. 

Tsagan, a young Asian-American woman who was hanging out inside a car with her friend Sidy, who is Black, said the city’s plan to install meters is wrong and that it makes her wonder whether she can afford to stay in Oakland. 

“Before, Oakland was Oakland to everyone. This will change it. It will gentrify [the area],” Tsagan said. 

A group of four Black friends on Lakeshore Avenue who were selling civil rights books and hair products at a table they set up, told The Oaklandside they have already felt disregarded and disrespected by the city. 

Maurice Titus, who was part of the group, said it was “pitiful” the city had not made more of an effort to let people know this was happening. 

“No one told us. You can’t expect people who are busy surviving and trying to make a living to pay attention to city council meetings,” said another, Karamah. 

Karamah, who declined to give his last name, said that while revenue from the meters will be high, he expects businesses in the area to lose money from residents who will not want to pay for parking. 

“We can’t go off into the restaurants from the lake like we are used to. Am I going to be worrying about whether the meter is paid?” 

Victor Carranza, a recent immigrant from Guatemala and a construction worker, said he might pay to stay at the lake if it was only $1 or $2 an hour but any more than that would force him to leave. Carranza parks at the lake after work three or four times a week. 

“My dad originally said the east part of the lake was dangerous, with beatings and violence. But I’ve found it great,” he said in Spanish. 

The benefits of meters, and steps to prevent gentrification

Cars along Lakeshore Avenue. Lake Merritt is one of Oakland’s busiest parks. Credit: Amir Aziz

Isaac Kos-Read, who lives near the lake and is a member of Oakland’s Parks and Recreation Advisory Commission, voted in support of the meters when the city’s Department of Transportation initially proposed them. At the time, Kos-Read was surprised that metering was chosen as the first potential remedy to the lake’s growing public safety and cleanliness issues, instead of more immediate, new programs to pick up trash or enforce traffic. Still, like others who support the meters, he believes people now “hog parking spaces all day long.” 

“I hope they don’t become just another thing that’s damaged, disrespected, and not cared for,” he said about the kiosks.

Kos-Read said that he doesn’t want the parking meter issue to distract from larger problems with violence, homelessness, trash, and “dangerous and disturbingly loud vehicle activity” around the lake. While he doesn’t think the meters will make those issues disappear, he hopes that the revenue they raise will make a difference through better city services. 

“It’s a little bit of a wait-and-see approach,” he said. “We won’t know if it will have an impact for a while. Is it going to increase access? We’ll see.” 

Leanne Alameda, a marketing strategist and a member of the Lake Merritt Community Alliance neighborhood group, told the Oaklandside that while not every neighbor was in support of metering, many want it because it could reduce double and triple parking during weekend events. This has caused unsafe conditions, she said, including blocking emergency services vehicles from accessing Lakeshore Avenue. 

“At the end of the day, it’s about safety,” she said. 

According to city officials, the metering technology will allow parking enforcement staff to more easily and safely ticket people. Just like in other parts of the city, they can quickly scan license plates, without getting out of their car, to find out whether a person has paid the meter. In previous years, some city staffers were threatened when attempting to ticket cars. 

Alameda noted that the city’s Parks and Recreation Advisory Commission has attempted to minimize the possible gentrifying effects of meters by recommending that parking revenue be used to pay for street vendor programs and discounted transportation access to the lake, including free bus fare on weekends. The City Council directed that meter money be used for these purposes, in addition to park maintenance and safety, but the programs are a long way from launching.

Alameda also said that the Lake Merritt Community Alliance reached out to District 2 Councilmember Nikki Bas and OakDOT to ask the city to open up closed parking lots within walking distance of the lake, making them free for low-income people. She said no one got back to her about the idea. 

Bas, in an email statement to The Oaklandside, said she is expecting the city to follow through on the council’s direction to “increase equitable access to Lake Merritt and promote a safe, equitable and enjoyable experience at Lake Merritt.” She said this includes providing “extensive outreach” to lake visitors about the new laws before ticketing people’s cars. The outreach will include warnings for first-time violators and information about other available parking, as well as instructions for “income-based” payment plans for low-income residents.

Privacy concerns about the new metering technology

Some Oaklanders are also worried about how data gathered by the new meters could be misused or stolen by hackers. Parkmobile, a company that already contracts with the city for parking meter payment services downtown, experienced a data breach a few years ago that potentially led to people’s financial and personal information being made available on the web to fraudsters. 

Tracey Rosenberg, the founder of Oakland Privacy, a nonprofit civil liberties group, said some said privacy concerns about the new meters were addressed by an Oakland Privacy Commission policy, which says police should not have access to data from the meters. 

However, Rosenberg said she thinks the new meters are a bad idea. “Parks are one of the last free forms of entertainment. There’s a limited amount of public space. When we turn that into a transaction, there are equity effects. A lot of us have less disposable income or any,” she said. 

Jose Fermoso covers road safety, transportation, and public health for The Oaklandside. His previous work covering tech and culture has appeared in publications including The Guardian, The New York Times, and One Zero. Jose was born and raised in Oakland and 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.