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Shoppers enjoy free parking on Friday night

on October 24, 2009

Just past the intersection of Grand Avenue and Lake Park at 6:30 PM, car after car glided down the street and the occasional driver slowed to troll for parking. The meters had expired and the free parking spots were full of gleaming vehicles reflecting the neon lights of the marquee over the Grand Lake Theater. The glowing sign displayed a full slate of movies, alongside the latest pointed message to the city council about the parking controversy that has been felt so strongly in this neighborhood.

But this was supposed to be a night of celebration, not strife. On Friday, businesses around Oakland were participating in an open house in honor of “the return of free evening parking.”  Shops stayed open later than usual, offered deals and provided live music to bring shoppers out to neighborhood businesses following the city council’s decision to roll back the parking meter hours to their original ending time of 6 PM.

The parking meters expired after 6 PM.

The parking meters expired after 6 PM.

After all the parking debates, organizer Pamela Drake was hoping to create a way to put the focus on local businesses, and to move away from the frustration that some Oaklanders had been expressing. “I hope they will not take it out on their neighborhood merchants,” said Drake, the Director of the Lakeshore Business Improvement District. “We’re here for you, and we make your neighborhoods alive.”

On the sidewalk, people were sitting at tables outside the Day of the Dead Café and enjoying the warmth of the evening. Inside, six or seven customers were laughing and talking, and owner Smoky Memel was behind the counter taking orders. Memel said he wasn’t doing anything special for the open house, but his business was participating in the event.

“We went back up as soon as it went back,” Memel said of how his business had rebounded after the city rolled back the parking meter hours.

Just outside the café, a well-dressed couple was strolling down the street, visiting their favorite shops. They heard about the open house because they are on the email list from their city council representative, Patricia Kernighan of District Two. They were headed to a wine shop.

Down the street, in front of Café DiBartolo, several satellite news trucks were occupying some of the metered spots. Grand Lake Theater owner Allen Michaan, one of the strongest voices for the repeal the city’s parking free increases, walked past with a TV news crew in tow.

“We’re only participating by being open and showing movies,” Michaan later said of the event. “It’s really a device to make it sound like the problem is solved and everything is hunky dory.”

Michaan and some fellow business owners still feel that parking enforcement is overzealous, it is too difficult to dispute tickets and the meters cost too much.

The latest pointed message to the city council on marquee over the Grand Lake Theater.

The latest pointed message to the city council on marquee over the Grand Lake Theater.

Back in July, when the city council extended the meter hours and hiked parking costs to balance the budget, Michaan lead a group of shopkeepers against the increases and threatened to stage a recall vote against council members. When the council compromised and rolled back the meter hours a few weeks ago, Michaan said it was too little too late and he would forge ahead with the recall. But as of last night, he had changed his mind and said he was working on a June ballot measure to dictate a new Oakland parking policy instead.

The Grand Lake Theater marquee, which Michaan had previously been using to advocate for a recall, was milder on Friday too:  “The city council rolled back meter hours to 6 PM,” it read. “This provides no relief for daytime businesses.”

Back on the sidewalk, behind a stack of amplifiers and instruments, a three-piece folk band was warming up. The sound of rolling keyboards, acoustic guitar and mellow drumming filled the street. Brokenfolk was playing in honor of the open house.

Neighborhood residents Francis Upton and Martha Lyman were sitting at a table outside Café DiBartolo with their two kids, one-year-old Ona and three-year-old Leah. When Upton and Lyman heard about the event, they made plans to come have coffee and browse at the bookshop next door.

“We often go out on Friday nights,” said Upton, who lives nearby but usually drives over because he finds it an easier way to travel with young kids.  “We parked in the lot.”

Upton said the family ritual was not disrupted back in July when the meter fees and hours increased. “We knew we had to pay more, but we still spent our Friday nights out,” he said.

Inside Café DiBartolo, barista Sarah Hertweck was working a few hours later than usual to keep the café open for the event.  “I’m just pro anything that’s going to get people out and meeting their neighbors,” she said.

Francis Upton and Martha Lyman outside Café DiBartolo with one-year-old Ona and three-year-old Leah.

Francis Upton and Martha Lyman outside Café DiBartolo with one-year-old Ona and three-year-old Leah.

Hertweck has been staging her own personal crusade against the parking meter outside the café, which she said always charges credit cards for $4—the price to park for two hours—in a one hour zone. She puts notes on it to warn those who park there, but someone takes them down every day.

Hertweck herself has found a way to circumvent the parking issue. She bikes to work from her home downtown. “There’s no way I could ever afford to park,” she said.

Back below the marquee of the Grand Lake Theater, under the flashing lights and the public challenge to the city council, Julie Baron of Alameda was standing around and waiting to meet a friend for dinner.

When she was asked about the open house event and the parking, she said she didn’t know anything about it. “What is it?” she asked.

Midway through the backstory about shops and meters and council meetings, her friend arrived. There were hugs and greetings, and suddenly the third member of the group got the distinct feeling that she was becoming a third wheel.

Obviously, there was no reason for Baron to want to talk to a stranger about this parking stuff when there was a beautiful evening, a lovely meal and good company awaiting her.

Feet were shuffled, heads were nodded, and Baron and her friend said a polite goodbye. Then they headed off into the neighborhood in search of dinner.

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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