A sign in the window of Paper Plus Outlet offers to help customers get change for parking meters. Photo: Hannah Long

By Hannah Long

Berkeley’s San Pablo Avenue is a thoroughfare for cross-city traffic and a hub for all sorts of businesses. Recently, however, some of the street’s business owners say the street has been suspiciously empty, with few parked cars or people frequenting stores.

Terry Griffin, who runs Griffin Motorwerke, blames this absence on 420 parking meters that were installed two years ago.

“The day the city put in these meters, people stopped parking on San Pablo Avenue,” he said. “Now, they just don’t shop there anymore.”

The coin-only meters were installed along certain stretches of San Pablo Avenue in 2010 after a unanimous vote by the Berkeley City Council. This measure, which also raised the rates of meters across the city by 25 cents an hour, was passed in an effort to increase city revenue to fight the economic recession.

Griffin says that the meters ruined his automobile business and forced him to move from San Pablo and Page to a new location on 6th Street.

“Once the meters went in, customers began telling me that they wouldn’t come back to businesses in Berkeley because the meters cost too much,” he said.

Paper Plus Outlet: owner Michele Schurman says customers spend less time in the store because of parking meters. Photo: Lance Knobel

Michele Schurman, who owns Paper Plus Outlet at San Pablo and Cedar, also had complaints about the parking meters. “The meters have really affected the amount of time people will spend in my store. People come in, get what they need, and leave,” she said. This is particularly problematic, she says, because her store has thousands of different items and no-one can look at everything in just five or 10 minutes.

Jessie Foster is the owner of vintage fashion and decor store Far and Few at 1643 San Pablo. “For many years I ran my business two doors down from here,” she said. “There were no meters and we had lots of business. I moved to this storefront around the same time that they installed the meters and it has had a really large impact. Now people are always worried about their meter. The machines don’t take credit cards and often people don’t have the change they need. The meters are also discriminatory because some blocks have them and some don’t.”

Shoppers have mixed views. Erica and Tom, two Berkeley residents who frequent San Pablo stores often (and did not want to give Berkeleyside their last names) had differing opinions on the issue. “I noticed when the parking meters went in, but don’t really mind them,” said Erica. “Most of my trips to San Pablo, like this one to Paper Plus Outlet, are really brief, so I just put a quarter in the meter and don’t worry about it.”

Tom, however, says that the meters have affected his trips to the area. “It’s such a hassle to find change for the meters so now I try to avoid coming to San Pablo when I can.”

Griffin Motorwerke: moved from San Pablo to 6th St. due to parking meters, according to owner Terry Griffin. Photo: Lance Knobel
Griffin Motorwerke: moved from San Pablo to 6th St. due to parking meters, according to owner Terry Griffin. Photo: Lance Knobel

While the store owners’ comments suggest the meters may have had an impact on the profitability of San Pablo businesses, City data paint another picture. The sales tax revenue collected by the city of Berkeley from the San Pablo commercial area rose by an average of about $53,000 per year in 2010 and 2011, during, and directly after, the installation of the meters. City revenue from sales tax makes up 1% of all taxable sales, thus the earnings of San Pablo businesses rose by approximately $5.3 million per year during this time. While inflation certainly played some role in this increase, it’s also possible that business on San Pablo Avenue only appeared to slow in recent years.

Another important factor in the parking meter debate is the discrepancy between projected and actual revenue meters provide for the city. A city report published with the proposed measure estimated that the meters would bring in $98,890 and $403,113 in revenue in the 2010 and 2011 fiscal years, respectively. Recent data, however, shows that the actual revenue was only a fraction of this ($34,232 in the 2010 fiscal year and $186,481 in the 2011 fiscal year). These figures, which do not take into account installation and maintenance costs, raise questions about the value of these meters.

City Councilmember Linda Maio, whose district includes much of San Pablo Avenue, admits that the meters have not had the results she hoped for.

“The decision to put in the meters was a budgetary one, as we were all trying to work through a difficult period,” she said. “I don’t think that the meters were great for business and, in hindsight, I regret agreeing to this measure.”

Empty parking spots on San Pablo at Cedar. Photo: Hannah Long

However, Michael Caplan, Economic Development Manager for Berkeley, said that revenue has gone down across the board in the past few years — including sales revenue, parking meter revenue, the number of parking meter violations and tickets. “My guess is that this is a result of the larger economy and people just aren’t going out to shop as much because of the recession,” he said.

Caplan says he has not heard many objections to the meters from retail businesses on San Pablo, although a few of the car repair shops there have expressed concerns. “I have heard a few complaints from some of the auto repair businesses on San Pablo about the parking meters. They used to use public parking spaces as a place to store vehicles, which they’re really not supposed to do. This has become a lot harder now that there are meters.

“We actually use parking meters to try to encourage spaces for customers because when parking is in short supply business employees tend to take many of the spots,” he continues. “Meters prevent them from parking in one spot all day and so actually encourage turnover.”

Parking meters are equally contentious in another area of Berkeley, the Lorin district, where a city council moratorium has temporarily placed covers on all meters. Houshmane Ghaderi, owner of the Vault Café on Adeline, said: “When the parking meters were put in all of the businesses around here lost a lot of customers. Covering them has had a huge impact. Business isn’t as good as it once was, but it’s slowly getting better.” The moratorium, which has been renewed twice, will last through this year.

Caplan says there have been no discussions about taking the same action on San Pablo. “The reason we covered the meters on Adeline was because of analysis by our transportation engineer,” he says. “The businesses in the area were complaining so much and when we looked at revenue flows it was clear that the businesses were generating so little revenue that it was inefficient. We haven’t heard the same complaints from San Pablo businesses.”

In west Berkeley, however, Motorwerke owner Griffin is worried: “Berkeley officials should be promoting business, but measures like these parking meters create an anti-business atmosphere. I’m not sure how long my business will last here in Berkeley.”

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$3.8 million to plan for smart parking in Berkeley [11.04.11]
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