Parking around Trader Joe’s sparks ‘vigilante’ action

Handmade signs affixed to trees between Milvia and Bonita on December 20th warned of the risk of being ticketed. Photo: D.H. Parks

By Linda Hemmila

If you’ve received a parking ticket near Trader Joe’s on University Avenue in Berkeley, you’re in good company. So many people have been ticketed there over the past year and half it’s become a neighborhood cause, has provoked defiant action from a “parking vigilante”, and is up for renewed discussion at the next scheduled City Council meeting on January 17th.

The trouble stems from parking signs in the area, which, according to councilmember Jesse Arreguín, are “very confusing”. The city has acknowledged as much by dismissing most contested citations because, it says, the signage is not sufficiently clear to visitors.

It all started in June 2010 when, as part of the redevelopment of the downtown area — and with the June 11 opening of Trader Joe’s — the city altered parking signs in the neighborhood that designated one side of the street as resident-only parking and the other side two-hour parking. The signs on the residential side were adorned with red and white city-made stickers denoting “no parking” that were placed directly over the old sign which said “two- hour parking”. The streets in questions include Berkeley Way, Addison Street, Bonita Avenue and Grant Street.

A sign by a "parking vigilante" offers advice. Photo: Linda Hemmila

That’s when councilmembers started to receive phone calls complaining of unfair parking citations.

“These aren’t just scofflaws,” said Anthony Sanchez, legislative aid to councilmember Arreguín. “There is a hodgepodge of signs in that area making it hard for people to know what to do. The stickers just made that worse. Is it two-hour parking or no parking? People aren’t sure.”

Calls from citizens seeking help with traffic citations aren’t new to Arreguin’s office. “That’s what we do,” said Sanchez. But he said he is currently receiving up to three calls a day on this problem alone. “Such a disproportionate number of tickets are coming from this one area, so you know the signage isn‘t working,” he said.

In November 2011, a City Council information item raised the issue of the clarity and effectiveness of the Trader Joe’s area parking signs. A memo from Andrew Clough, Director of Public Works, concluded the signs met all legal standards. However the memo went on to suggest revisiting the design of the signs and possibly making modifications which would state more clearly where parking was allowed.

One “dramatic alternative” suggested in the memo was to completely eliminate the Residential Preferential Parking (RPP) modification and restore the entire area to allow 2-hour visitor parking.

“The city, the mayor and council are very sympathetic to people and are working to resolve this problem,” said Arreguín this week. “But this takes time and resources.” Arreguín and his staff have drafted a consent item for the January 17 City Council meeting which recommends the city manager move to temporarily enforce the previous two-hour parking limit until the new signs are installed.

But relief isn’t coming quickly enough for some residents in the neighborhood. In recent months the tickets have continued to pile up and so have complaints. Frustrated by the city’s lack of swift action, some neighbors have taken matters into their own hands by fashioning signs warning drivers not to park in particular areas, or risk being ticketed.

When the busy holiday season brought more shoppers to the area, one person became known as the “parking vigilante”. A psychotherapist with a practice in the neighborhood (who wishes to remain anonymous), she said she was so irate she began scrawling notes and leaving them on cars informing drivers where to get help with the violations.

A Hudstead's truck on MLK between Berkeley Way and Hearst in November

What appears to be a Hudstead's employee removes handmade signs next to his truck

“It’s evil. The city and the tow company are benefiting from these bad signs. They’re making thousands of dollars off of poor people who cannot afford the tickets,” she said. Berkeley’s policy is that any car on a city street found to have five or more parking violations is subject to be towed.

“I’ve had my sessions interrupted by the clanking of the tow truck and the screams of those who are being towed. This is outrageous,” said the “vigilante”. “Something had to be done, so a bunch of us got together and asked if we could put signs on our property telling people to not park there, but drivers from [towing company] Hustead’s started coming around and yanking them down so they could continue to benefit from the problem,” she said.

Hustead’s manager, Janice Lee, says that’s not happening. “Our drivers would never do that. It sounds illegal and that would be grounds for termination. They would never go on private property and remove anything, there’s just no reason to do it.” However a photo taken in the first week of November appears to show a Hustead’s employee removing handmade pink signs on Martin Luther King Jr. Way near Hearst.

Meantime, Arreguín and his staff hope the temporary resolution they are suggesting to Council eases the parking situation while waiting for the real signs to arrive — and they say they can offer assistance to those with violations still within the 21-day appeal period. “We are committed to helping people overturn their tickets,” Sanchez said.

Shoppers rush right in to new Trader Joe’s [06.11.10]
Parking will be tight at new Trader Joe’s [06.04.10] 

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  • Bradley Froehle

    Berkeley’s policy is that any car on a city street found to have ***five or more*** parking violations is subject to be towed.

    Sucks if your fifth violation was for this, but come on… how hard is it to follow the rules for at least one of your four previous infractions.

  • Charles_Siegel

    Don’t try to get a job as a lawyer.

  • Bruce Love

    “No parking 8am-7pm except [weekends etc. and with permit]”

    Presumably overnight parking without a permit is cool.

  • Charles_Siegel

    “Their formerly sleepy neighborhood has been greatly changed forever.”

    I used to live on that block, and it wasn’t a sleepy neighborhood.  There was constant traffic and noise from Grand Auto.  From my back yard, you could hear the auto repairs being done at Grand Auto.  People changed their oil in the parking lot, and then threw the empty oil cans in the street.  Cars never stopped for pedestrians as they were pulling into the Grand Auto parking lot; my son was a baby then, I used to push him up the sidewalk in his strollers, and cars pulling into the parking lot would cut us off without even slowing down. 

    I don’t live there now, but I live a couple of blocks away and pass by often, and I think it is much more pleasant with Trader Joes.

    It might be harder to park with Trader Joes, but it was also very hard to park back when I lived there.  It is clearly a more pleasant neighborhood with Trader Joes than it was with a strip mall featuring Grand Auto.

  • Anonymous

    The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the E Permitted as well as non-E Permitted to park on that section of Berkeley Way from 12:30 pm to 3:30 pm on the 2nd Tuesday of each month.

    Holidays presumably trump Street Sweeping … but then again ….if the 2nd Tuesday of the month is a Holiday ….

  • Anonymous

    Though you might consider running for President.

  • Anonymous

    If you read it, it’s clear.

    HOWEVER … every other sign in Berkeley which looks similar to that one ALLOWS two hours of parking in an Alphabetic Parking Zone.  I agree with The Sharkey.


  • Meliflaw

    I’m glad to hear that TJ’s has had a good effect on your neighborhood. I walk there twice a week and pick up a bag or two of groceries, thus not having to drive to El Cerrito.

  • Anonymous

    When I first saw “vigilante” in this story’s headline my thought was “oh, someone is taking it upon themselves to enforce parking laws” and not “someone is trying to inform other citizens about the risk of a parking ticket.”  So for me it wasn’t a particularly helpful label in this case.

  • Bill

    and in 2012 they’ll probably vote too!

  • neighbor

    I try to use AC Transit as much as possible to run errands around town but the buses run so infrequently or so off schedule that I wind up walking at least half the time. At least I get a lot of exercise…
    It’s frustrating to be car-free in a city that should have good public transit but really does not. Whatever happened to the guy who wanted to start the B Line private bus service?

  • I’m not saying I think it’s the best word choice, I’m just explaining why I think the author used the word, and how it could be considered accurate. If you want to continue knit-picking at a relatively unimportant aspect of the story feel free. But it sure seems silly to do so.

    Vigilante is always used to mean people who act as self-appointed police and try to catch criminals.

    Really? Always? Are you sure you’ve seen every single use of the word, and can make such an authoritative claim?


  • I don’t know anything about the B Line, but I’d love it if we could resurrect something like the Key System. Perhaps not in scope, but wow it was such a neat service. Public transit improvements are something I wouldn’t mind having additional parcel taxes for.

  • Good point, Bradley.

    I wonder how they decide when to tow and when to boot?
    I feel like I’ve been seeing more of the new boots around town lately, and less of the tow trucks, but maybe that’s just because I’m more aware of the issue because of Berkeleyside’s reporting.

  • Bill

    it says “No Parking Except E Permits 8AM to 7PM.” While the NO parking aspect
    seems excessive to me I would be interested on how many people walk to TJ’s as
    opposed to drive? Has that been surveyed by TJ’s?  Where do the TJ
    employees park?  How much of the problem
    is the store or the chronic shortage of parking in Berkeley anyway for people just coming to the

    you go during the day (and we go 1-2 times a week) there is usually parking in
    the lot. We live close enough to TJ’s to walk all the time (4 blks) and we have
    a driveway but our block has significant impact from the Dog Park
    – but only at certain times of the day and weekends so it’s sort of a mini TJ
    problem.  Does that then qualify for NO
    Parking too?

  • Anonymous

    As far I know, we have not run a survey on how customers get to and from Trader Joe’s.  Many employees take Bart and ride their bikes.  Or if they do drive, are permitted short breaks to go move their cars roughly every 2 hours.  I do see many people trying to use the parking lot, and am appalled at the way people disregard traffic signs, have no sense of speed or driving safely in the small lot that is provided to them.  I have seen people drive the wrong way causing traffic jams as well as people hitting the gate and driving over the parking barriers.  It should also be noted that TJ’s tows cars that park in the lot for more than 2 hours as well as after the store is closed.  It is unfortunate that spots are being taken up but at least there is some sort of permit system in place, albeit residents may have to pay more for it.  On my block we have not permit spots and people regularly use it for Bart parking, which can be very frustrating and has been a problem long before this current situation.

  • Berk Loc

    Haha, I’ll add that to the list of other conspiracy theories…to be nice the first offense for parking there without a permit could be a warning, which it sounds like the city is essentially doing by dropping the charges on people who were cited until the sign is made more clear.

  • Bill

    It always seems like there are certainly more customers in the store than there are cars parked in THEIR lot. I guess my point is that TJ’s may be the problem but it may NOT be all of it. Between Berkeley and North Berkeley BART stations is a great place to park if it’s not permit parking and offers access to downtown and BART.  And even if it is permitted the area is a great place to park that isn’t metered and offers 2 hour (really more than than of course) free parking for going downtown or any number of eating or business establishments. 

  • EBGuy

    Or is there a problem?  As I said before the November 15, 2011 memo linked above by Berkeleyside
    “Parking surveys conducted in May 2010 before the store opened,
    and in January
    2011 after the store had been operating for more than
    six months, concluded that
    the overall parking occupancy in the
    neighborhood did not increase with the
    presence of Trader Joe’s, and
    there tended to be parking available on both the
    modified and regular
    RPP sides of the street. This suggests that the anticipated
    demand increase that the RPP modifications were made to address has
    occurred. “

  • Valentina

    My son worked at TJ’s until last spring. There is no where for the employees who cannot take public transportation to park. My son was moved to the evening/swing shift which meant he left 2-4 hours after the store closed. No public transit. No parking for employees. He sometimes parked in Albany and walked to TJ’s but at night it could be very dangerous. We ended up spending his last paycheck paying oof parking tickets. He made $10.00 hour.

  • Bill

    That’s sort of the impression i get when I walk around the neighborhood.  That said, I suspect between 4 and 6 there is more impact but in general TJ’s doesn’t seem to have made much difference.  It’s certainly a better retail for the EXTENDED neighborhood than the Kragen and, what was it, Petco.

  • Charles_Siegel

    I will believe that corporations are people when Texas executes one.

  • Pgaps

    Thanks for a common sense note.  I got a “good” ticket too visiting a friend not TJ’s!

  • Pgaps

     “vigilante” ? it shouldn’t be “a good Samaritan”

  • Charles_Siegel

    There are lots and lots of jobs where you absolutely cannot get to work unless you have a drive there.  All of those are options for your son.

    What is wrong with balancing that with a few jobs that it is easier to get to if you don’t drive there??  Provide some options for people who need jobs and don’t have cars.