The City of San Francisco has long had an understanding with local churches that their members can park in the middle of the street on Sundays, as long as residents tolerate the unusual arrangement.
That is no longer the case on Valencia Street, according to some neighbors, who said they have complained to the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Authority (SFMTA) and district supervisors without success.
“This issue has been an immediate inconvenience and concern to me for over a decade,” said Elizabeth Zitrin, a resident who is unhappy about the disruption created by the Sunday parking privileges on Valencia near 19th Street.
“I have been actively attempting to get information from the City and County of San Francisco about the authority and any legal basis for private parking in public roadways since February of 2011,” she said.
A recent proposal, supported by Mayor Ed Lee, to enforce parking meter fees citywide on Sundays could make the informal parking arrangements even more difficult for churches and residents.
The SFMTA doesn’t give churches official parking authorization, leaving it up to the establishments to reach agreement with residents.
“There has been a longstanding agreement between authorities and churches that religious groups can accommodate their members as long as it does not disturb traffic,” said Paul Rose, a spokesman for the SFMTA.
“If neighbors are inconvenienced,” he said, “we encourage them to call 311.”
That’s exactly what Zitrin did. With the help of other neighbors, she’s been trying to find out how to get the cars parked in the center of Valencia moved for close to 12 years. She has contacted several enforcement agencies, including the SFMTA and the City Attorney, but obtained no clear answer.
One church in particular, St. Mark’s Institutional Missionary Baptist Church at Valencia and 19th streets, causes problems every Sunday, Zitrin said.
St. Mark’s prints what it calls parking permits.
“Are these legitimate permits to park in the middle of the traffic lanes on Valencia Street?” Zitrin asked. The short answer is no, but permission from the churches does have a certain amount of moral authority.
Zitrin isn’t the only resident who is bothered by the churches’ parking practices.
“It’s a nightmare to find parking [around Valencia street] on Sundays,” said Roxanne, a resident who declined to give her last name.
A bartender at the 500 Club on Guerrero Street said it’s unfair that churchgoers get to park in the middle of the street.
“Where are my customers supposed to park?”
St. Mark’s staff gives the parking flyers to worshippers to put on their dashboards when parking in the middle of the street, but they are not legal permits, according to city representatives.
The flyers state that members are allowed to park in the middle of Valencia Street during worship services. They also list the church’s phone number.
St. Mark’s administrator, Shirley Forman, is adamant that her congregation of 30 to 60 members is not disobeying the law.
“The city allowed us to park in the middle of the street,” she said. However, the SMFTA did not confirm this explicitly. The piece of paper, Forman said, “is meant to identify the owner of the car, if someone needs it to be moved in case of an emergency.”
District Supervisor Scott Wiener agreed with Forman. “It is a traditional agreement of sorts,” he said, that allows churchgoers to park in the middle of the street. “Some constituents have commented on the issue,” he added, but these were “not many.”
SFMTA spokeswoman Kristen Holland said that the so-called permits are only “informal” and bear no official recognition from enforcement agencies. It is the churches’ responsibility to deal with parking, she added, insisting that groups “are advised to be good neighbors.”
Other churches in the neighborhood have similar parking practices.
A few blocks away, on 17th and Guerrero streets, Cornerstone Church uses the middle of the street to accommodate its members.
Here churchgoers park in the middle of Guerrero Street, leaving just enough space on each side for cars to get through.
Cornerstone’s Pastor, Kyung Kim, said that although the church has approximately 1,200 visitors each Sunday, there are usually no issues with parking thanks to the agreement he reached with the police and SFMTA.
Four volunteers stand by as people park to make sure that only churchgoers use the parking spaces. People attending mass know that parking is to be used only during service. If they stay longer, they will get a ticket.
However, the volunteers acknowledge that they don’t always know whether the people who park there are going to church or to nearby cafés and restaurants.
Many neighbors seem accustomed to the parking arrangements and don’t have a problem with them.
“It’s always difficult to park here anyway,” said a grocery shop owner on Guerrero Street near Cornerstone Church.
“Church people do not take extra space.”
Mike Kimball, who owns an art gallery nearby, agreed that churchgoers shouldn’t be blamed for parking woes.
“The street does not empty out after services,” he said.
Others, far from being inconvenienced, see the numerous churchgoers as a blessing.
“It is good for business,” said Johannes, a shopkeeper on Guerrero Street. “Church people often stop here when the service is done, and I can’t complain about the traffic flow either; it is usually OK.”