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.
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.
“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.