The city of Berkeley mistakenly added numerous new stretches of red curbs in the Panoramic Hill neighborhood above UC Berkeley earlier this year, when the intent was to simply repaint existing red zones. Upset neighbors alerted the city of the error, which fixed it right away. Credit: Robert Breuer

Early steps toward long-discussed parking changes in the city’s highest-hazard wildfire neighborhoods got off to a rough start earlier this year, when a contractor blanketed curbs with red paint against the city’s intentions.

The result — the removal of all legal parking on several blocks of the Panoramic Hill neighborhood above the UC Berkeley stadium — stirred panic in some residents. And though the error was caught early and fixed by the city within days by returning some of the fresh red curbs back to gray, the upset gives a sense of just how sensitive parking issues are for people living on the city’s narrow hillside streets close to open space.

On the one hand, parking can be challenging for many, residents say, especially those living in historical homes built before there were requirements for off-street parking, such as a driveway or carport. On the other hand, most agree with the need to keep roadways clear for evacuation and emergency vehicles during a fire or other disaster, including fire trucks.

As wildfire season approaches and Berkeley presses on with its relatively new Community Wildfire Plan, a multi-department effort at planning for fires, street clearance is just one of the many issues the city hopes to address. Others include defensible space vegetation management, emergency notification and evacuation planning.

A draft of the plan was released in February, and the city is soliciting residents’ input via a survey through March 15. The draft plan, which provides a detailed layout of past wildfire actions and various departments, agencies and groups working on these issues, summarizes public survey findings. The plan started seeking public input when it launched last year. 

Street passage (in and out of fire-prone neighborhoods) is identified in surveys as a top priority under safety measures. Steps considered over the years include expanding no-parking curbs and ramping up enforcement. 

The red curb mistake was an unfortunate blip, said Asst. Fire Chief Keith May. The intent, he said, was to repaint existing faded red curbs and replace existing damaged or missing parking signs — measures he called “low-hanging fruit,” prevention steps identified by the city’s Disaster and Fire Safety Commission, while the community plan is finalized.

May takes responsibility for not alerting neighbors about the work before it happened.

“We chose fire zone three, the very highest severity. We didn’t think about messaging because it’s repainting red curbs. If we were establishing new curbs, that would be a whole new thing,” May said. 

The painting contractor was confused by a map provided by the city and ended up painting all the curbs red, even a few stretches of road with legal parking. 

Thanks to residents’ outcry, the situation was remedied quickly. “We were all understandably confused by what happened, said Councilmember Mark Humbert, who represents the Panorama Hill area, a dense, steep historical neighborhood abutting open space with only one route in or out. “My understanding is that most, if not all, areas were corrected by the end of the following day.”

He’s optimistic that this error won’t trigger a backsliding in efforts to develop lasting solutions to emergency road clearance in high fire hazard zones.

The city has grappled with the issue for years — for all of Berkeley’s high wildfire-risk neighborhoods, not just Panoramic Hill. 

In 2016, the City Council officially identified the need to design a parking program for the hills to improve emergency access and evacuation. In 2019, spearheaded by Councilmember Susan Wengraff, the council adopted a wildfire prevention resolution outlining priorities that included launching Safe Passages, a program to ensure emergency access on streets and paths.

Since then, Safe Passages has largely languished, which May relates, in part, to staff changes in the fire department. At one point last year, a plan was forming for Mills College business students to implement a community outreach component of Safe Passages to help with controversial aspects of the plan.

This never came to fruition, May said.

For now, May said the spiff-ups to existing red curbs and parking signs are on hold.

He said the city will wait for the results of a detailed evacuation study to help prioritize wildfire prevention steps, including parking. The city is finalizing a contract for the study.

“I strongly support the Safe Passages concept. I believe we can find ways to ensure residents have a reasonable amount of parking that still allows for emergency access and safer evacuation routes. This is exactly why a more comprehensive study would be ideal, so we can find the pinch points and make evidence-based decisions to focus our efforts,” Councilmember Humbert said.

Early discussions on Safe Passages suggested hill areas will need significant parking regulation changes to get cars off the streets, which would require some residents to give up street parking they’ve come to depend on.

“Pinch points” have come into focus, turns or particularly narrow stretches where cars and large vehicles such as fire trucks can get stuck, blocking traffic in both directions.

For Panoramic Hill, part of the area lies in Oakland, limiting the impact of Berkeley’s actions. 

One area of agreement is the need to cut down on illegal parking and consider how this will impact overall traffic flows. Residents, as well as the disaster and fire commission, have identified illegal parking as having major impacts on hillside street flows, including parking in no parking zones and on sidewalks, and double parking, especially by delivery trucks.

Beyond this, solutions have been controversial.

“Disaster commission public comments are all over the place,” May said. “The common theme is there are citizens that are very concerned about parking and getting access out, and getting fire engines.”

“And,” he added, “you hear from people who say we just don’t want changes on our street.”

May said his bottom line is saving lives and following fire codes. But the best plans are plans with resident buy-in, he said.

“A big part of the community wildfire plan is setting priorities with resident input, he said.

The city is currently seeking input on the draft plan through a survey. Responses are due by March 15. Learn more about the plan and take the survey.

Freelancer Catherine "Kate" Rauch has been contributing to Berkeleyside for several years. Her work as a journalist has encompassed everything from 10 years as a daily news reporter for the East Bay Times,...