No rest on Sunday: Free meter parking could end in Berkeley

Supporters say enforcing parking meters on Sundays could help shore up Berkeley’s parking fund, which has been battered by the pandemic.

Berkeley is considering extending parking meter enforcement to Sundays. Photo: Pete Rosos

Sunday has long been the day of rest for Berkeley’s parking meters. But time may be running out for that custom after the City Council voted this month to explore whether Berkeley should start charging drivers for parking at metered spaces seven days a week.

Although drivers accustomed to getting a break from the meter are likely to grumble about paying a Sunday tithe to park when they go to church or brunch, supporters of the idea say there is both a financial and environmental case for why its time has come.

Berkeley’s parking fund has been reeling throughout the pandemic, as many drivers cut back on travel and commuting. A 70% revenue decline during the last fiscal year led the council to shore up the meter fund with $3.2 million from the city’s general fund, in part to cover payments on the debt Berkeley took on to build its new $40 million Center Street Garage.

Forecasts show the fund is expected to stay in the red for years to come, and the city estimates requiring drivers to feed the meter on Sundays could bring in an additional $1 million to $1.5 million per year.

“We simply have not had the parking revenues that we usually have,” said Councilmember Sophie Hahn, who wrote the resolution the council approved Tuesday to study Sunday parking enforcement. “We, responsibly, have to look at ways to make our funds solvent.”

And supporters say providing free parking gives residents the wrong incentives in a city that has declared a climate emergency.

“I think it’s inconsistent to have parking be free when we’re charging for bus (trips),” said Councilmember Kate Harrison, one of three members who co-sponsored the referral. Harrison this fall proposed a separate pilot program to make AC Transit trips in Berkeley fare-free on Sundays, though that proposal was shelved for future budget discussions.

Hahn’s referral, approved at the council’s final meeting of 2021, launches what is likely to be a lengthy discussion and outreach process to decide if charging for Sunday parking makes sense and, if so, how to implement it. Whatever policy proposal comes out of that process would return to the City Council for a final vote sometime in the future.

At the West Berkeley restaurant Lulu, a popular spot for weekend brunch, Chef Mona Leena Michael did not think her business would suffer if diners had to pay to park at the metered spaces outside on Sundays. Then again, Michael said, she couldn’t imagine the new expense would be all that popular.

“Charging people on Sundays will certainly put a bitter taste in the community’s mouth,” Michael said, pointing to the backlash San Francisco faced from drivers after it began enforcing parking meters on Sundays in 2013.

Officials reversed course the following year, with then-Mayor Ed Lee saying the return of free Sunday parking was aimed at “making San Francisco a little more affordable.” Today, the city only enforces street meters on Sundays around Fisherman’s Wharf, the Embarcadero and during events at Oracle Park and the Chase Center.

Walnut Creek, on the other hand, has stuck with its move to Sunday meter enforcement since 2014.

In that case, the city charged for parking as a way to encourage turnover of spaces — when the meters were off, people kept their cars in prime spots all day, leaving few for customers, said Kathy Hemmenway, the executive director of Walnut Creek Downtown.

While business owners often worry customers will be less likely to visit their stores if they have to pay to park, proponents of charging for parking say drivers really care about being able to find an open spot, not whether it costs a couple of bucks. Berkeley and other cities set their parking rates to ensure spaces are available, but don’t have that option on days when meters are turned off.

In Walnut Creek, Hemmenway said, “It was a little bit of a shock to the system for everyone when it first occurred.”

Today, though, while the availability of spaces remains a challenge there is no sign the parking charges have driven customers away.

“It’s not anything that has been a deterrent,” she said.

Berkeley is not yet committed to following Walnut Creek’s lead.

The “broad outreach” process Hahn’s proposal called for will seek input from merchants, churches, neighborhood organizations and others to determine what Sunday parking should look like; the city could phase in Sunday meter charges with a pilot program in certain neighborhoods, Hahn noted, or exempt some parts of the city from enforcement.

Officials are not considering any changes to Berkeley’s Residential Parking Permit program, which is not enforced on the weekends throughout most of the city. Berkeley already charges for parking in city-owned garages on Sundays.

Ultimately, Hahn said, she couldn’t see why the city should treat parking any differently on Sundays than it does the rest of the week.

“There are people who worship on Saturday,” she said, “and we do charge for parking on Saturday.”

Nico Savidge is Berkeleyside's senior reporter covering city hall. Email: nico@berkeleyside.org. Twitter: NSavidge.