by Emily Green
On Thursday, San Francisco once again takes up the controversial issue of parking meter expansion at a committee hearing. One issue will be Sunday meter enforcement, which took effect in late February. The change has angered many churchgoers, who say it is undermining community bonding and forcing people to pay money to worship.
Floyd Jones is one of those people. He has been coming to the Jones Memorial United Methodist Church in San Francisco’s Japantown neighborhood every Sunday for the past 60 years.
Jones is 88 years old, dapper and witty. He used to come here with his wife, Ruby. She died 5½ years ago. Now he comes alone, waving to friends as the service gets under way and singing along to the songs.
“With the way that things are going, the social hour after church that we used to have — people stayed 20, 30 minutes and had little servings in here sometime,” said Floyd, standing outside the church. “But that’s all out.”
When services ended around 11:30, Jones headed to the church’s multipurpose room to catch up with friends over coffee and cookies.
Jones is part of a group of about 20 friends who gather in the church community room to exchange news about themselves and the neighborhood. Just about everyone here laments that the gatherings are getting smaller and not lasting as long. They blame Sunday parking.
LeVell McClain said congregants don’t stay around to socialize because they have to start feeding the meters outside the church at noon. It costs $1 an hour.
“Normally this room would be full,” McClain said. “But everybody [has] to leave because of the meters.”
McClain, a retired Muni operator who has attended the church for 25 years, said, “The fact that the church is kind of like the backbone of the average community – I would think the city could kind of back off a little bit on making you pay to come to church.”
The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency regulates the meters. Its spokesman, Paul Rose, said, “In the 1940s when most of the businesses were closed on Sundays, Sundays may have been sacred. It’s not sacred at this point, as far as parking is concerned.”
Rose said the Sunday meters should generate around $2 million annually, but contended that the change is not driven by money.
“There was a need for better parking management on Sundays,” Rose said. “There were very few parking spaces available. There was a lot of congestion, due to people circling or looking for parking throughout the city. They say that 33 percent of all congestion in San Francisco is due to circling or double parking or looking for that perfect parking space. And this will help with that.”
Only a handful of other cities in the country enforce parking meters on Sundays, including Sausalito and Los Angeles. Just this week, Chicago backed away from enforcing parking meters in residential areas on Sundays following a public outcry. In announcing the return of free Sunday parking, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel quoted one resident who said, “You shouldn’t have to pay to go to church.”
In San Francisco, businesses are split on the issue. A merchants’ association in the Castro neighborhood says it’s bad for business. But the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce supports it, as does the San Francisco Council of District Merchants. The council’s president, Henry Karnilowicz, says it’s all about turnover.
“We want to be able to have turnover traffic, so we don’t have people coming over and they are parking for the whole day,” Karnilowicz said. “Going to some sort of event, some sort of party and all that. And in the meantime, people who want to come to their business don’t have nowhere to park because these folks are parked for the full day.”
The Sunday meters start ticking at noon. So the churches that really feel the squeeze are those with afternoon services, such as St. Mark’s Institutional Baptist Church, located in the heart of the Mission District.
In midafternoon, Deacon Theodore Bennett stood outside in the street waiting to welcome guests for the 3 p.m. service. The city lets the church’s members park in the middle of the street, but Bennett said there is not enough space for everyone.
“A lot of members are not coming because they are on fixed income and they don’t have the money to pay for parking,” Bennett said.
In this neighborhood, the meter costs $4.50 an hour. That’s $9 for two hours. Bennett said he’s thinking about complaining but, like most churchgoers in the city, he hasn’t yet — even though he got a $65 ticket for a meter violation last month.
And with that said, he headed into church and began singing.
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