Public Comment

Commentary: A Death Sentence for Oakland Businesses

By Allen Michaan
Thursday July 23, 2009 - 09:56:00 AM

Times are tough. We are all very aware of this inescapable fact. Individual citizens are struggling with unemployment and reduced incomes. Businesses have seen a sharp drop-off in spending by their customers and, of course, government at every level is struggling to balance budgets that have been affected by declining tax revenues of every category, resulting in a scramble to find solutions to budget woes. 

Several weeks ago, in an effort to address these shortfalls, the Oakland City Council made a decision that will certainly provide short term revenues but at the same time will doom many small businesses and eventually devastate every shopping district in our city. That decision was to raise the meter rates to an unconscionable $2 per hour and, even worse, to extend enforcement hours to 8 p.m. In addition, all ticket fines have been increased as has the level of enforcement of violations.  

Our elected representatives have lost sight of the fact that they have been entrusted with the serious responsibility of protecting the viability of businesses located within this city. Consumers have a choice when it comes to patronizing any business and those eho drive have more choices. If any municipality inflicts conditions that result in driving shoppers to adjoining cities, then the consequences can be staggering.  

The Oakland City Council has been discouraging patronage in our shopping districts for years with high parking rates, broken meters, and unreasonable parking ticket fines, but their recent actions have raised the damage to local business to an unsustainable level. Our customers should not be viewed as potential suckers ripe for a municipal mugging, but instead as valued supporters of the economy of our community. Likewise, our residents should not be the targets of the multitude of aggressive and unfair ticketing that has been unleashed in the past few weeks. 

If there is not a prompt correction of this very dangerous course that the City Council has taken, I fear that we will soon see a cascade of failed small businesses in Oakland that will only add to the budget shortfalls by the loss of all of the income that the city receives from each business establishment.  

Once closed, these businesses will never return and each closure represents a devastating blow to those entrepreneurs and their families as well as to their employees. There is now a growing tidal wave of public fury to the transition of parking from being a needed amenity to that of a vehicle for extortion. I am very confident that sufficient outrage is present to support the gathering of signatures to force a recall of the entire City Council. While this would be very disruptive, it becomes the only avenue to change these policies that are so damaging to Oakland residents and businesses.  

During the 28 years that I have been honored to be the operator of the Grand Lake Theater, I have seen many changes in my neighborhood. After the revitalization of the theater with my restoration and expansion efforts in the 1980s, I saw Grand Avenue thrive. There were few storefront vacancies and the parking spaces were filled with customers for local businesses all day long. Parking rates were reasonable and parking violation citations were not draconian. 

Moviegoers from all over the Bay Area made the Grand Lake a special destination for a unique, high-quality entertainment experience in a restored movie palace. Today the situation is quite different. Years of escalating parking fees and fines have succeeded in driving away many of our customers. Today, storefront vacancies abound on Grand Avenue. There are always many unused parking spaces on the street during daytime hours as our customers have gone elsewhere. Free parking in surrounding communities and shopping malls, low cost parking in Alameda and the longtime climate of shoppers being considered revenue generators for the city through the aggressive ticketing process have taken their toll. 

Even the theater has seen a major reduction in attendance due to the more inviting environment created by the civic leaders of Emeryville and surrounding communities. I fear that the extension of meter enforcement until 8 p.m. will eliminate so many customers at the Grand Lake that the theater will not survive. This would also bring the failure of many of the restaurants in that neighborhood. When our shopping districts have died off, how much parking and ticketing revenue will the city then receive? While the city estimates over a million dollars per year in extra revenue from this new policy, they must consider how many dollars of customer spending is being chased out of Oakland. Could it be $50 million? $100 million? The new policy should be named “The City Of Oakland Anti-Stimulus Parking Package”!  

I respectfully implore that the City Council reconsider this hastily conceived change to the parking regulations that so dramatically affect both small businesses and the residents of Oakland. 

The enormous negative publicity and anger that has been generated by these changes can be easily redirected into a high-profile invitation for shoppers and diners to return to an Oakland that values their patronage and wants to be a gracious host to that business activity. This can happen with a roll-back of meter rates to a reasonable 50 cents per hour (like neighboring Alameda) and the elimination of enforcement past 6 p.m. Additionally, all parking citations that have been issued in the past two weeks should be forgiven.  

It is not shameful for the City Council to realize that a mistake has been made and to promptly correct that error. This is an opportunity to revitalize our business districts by extending a very public welcome mat. The resulting economic activity will lead to a more prosperous Oakland in the longterm via increased sales tax, employment tax, property tax, and business license tax revenues. 

I urge all readers of this column to contact their councilmembers to express their opinions, either in agreement or disagreement, and to send letters to the editors of papers that publish this commentary. The future of Oakland is in the hands of its citizens.  


Allen Michaan owns Oakland’s Grand Lake Theater.