Novelist Spurs Passion Over Parking


Romance novelist Danielle Steel is a woman of excess. She’s dashed off dozens of bestsellers, married five times, produced nine children and inhabits a sprawling compound that commands sweeping views of Alcatraz Island and the Golden Gate Bridge.

It turns out she has an appetite for parking places too.

The 54-year-old grande dame of fiction has amassed 26 residential permits in her tony Pacific Heights neighborhood--more than any San Franciscan, city officials say.

The permits exempt the holders from the posted parking restrictions that make parking on the street virtually impossible in many crowded neighborhoods.


In a traffic-clogged city where the number of cars dwarfs the number of parking spaces, where residents can circle for hours to find a spot, Steel’s penchant for parking permits has unleashed passions not normally associated with her 50-odd romance novels.

There has not only been angry sniping from neighbors but also miffed letters to the editor and a recent local newspaper headline that read: “Danielle’s Parking Orgy.”

“No single-family home should ever be allowed to have 26 parking permits,” said Myron Zimmerman, who lives across the street from Steel. “It’s way too excessive. She already has a huge underground garage and extra outside parking on her property. It puts people around here in a bind. If we have any kind of social event, we’ve got to hire valet parkers.”

Partially inspired by Steel’s surplus, irked city officials Thursday will consider limiting the number of parking permits to three per household. Under present law, residents can buy an unlimited number of permits--at $27 per year each.

San Francisco has the nation’s largest per-square-mile number of registered vehicles and one of the smallest numbers of per-capita parking spaces. About 500,000 vehicles compete each weekday for 320,000 street parking spaces, statistics show.

Crowded into 49 densely packed square miles, residents often wait two years for garage rental space. People wind up parking on sidewalks, often to find themselves later boxed in by other parking scofflaws.

Police issue 100,000 parking tickets annually specifically for sidewalk parking.

Not surprisingly, parking is a major revenue source for San Francisco. In the next two years, officials plan to install 25,000 electronic meters--many of which will accept as payment an ATM-style Translink card--a move that could boost the city’s annual take from the current $12.6 million to more than $18 million.

City officials said the uproar over Steel’s parking permits signals a frustration felt by nearly every San Franciscan.

“Parking is at an extraordinary premium in this city, and the issue is definitely the biggest complaint we face as city officials,” Supervisor Gavin Newsom said. “People hate to have to park on the sidewalk, and it moves them to organize so their voice is heard at City Hall.”

The parking issue recently prompted “one of the most acrimonious public meetings” Newsom said he’d attended. “No one wanted to talk about homelessness or affordable housing,” he said. “What they wanted to talk about were parking permits.”

Not Steel. The prolific author whose books--including “Bittersweet,” “The Gift” and “Fine Things"--have been translated into 28 languages in 47 countries, declined to discuss the permit controversy.

In 1988, the author and her then-husband, John Traina, a shipping consultant, paid $8 million for the home many consider the most elegant in San Francisco. Known as the “Parthenon of the West,” the mansion once housed sugar king Claus Spreckels and was the site of Frank Sinatra’s nightclub Chez Joey.

Perched on a hill surrounded by other multimillion-dollar mansions, the home features towering concrete walls, thick foliage and electronic surveillance. A sign outside the garage door warns: “No Parking.” Steel’s permits cover four Toyotas, three Mercedes, two Land Rovers, a Volvo, two antique 1940 Fords and a 2000 Jaguar, not to mention cars driven by her staff, records show.

When approached by a reporter, a man who said his name was Tony, Steel’s parking director, refused to comment and hustled the visitor out a side service door.

The move to limit parking permits was inspired last summer by Robert Kendrick, who lives in a wealthy neighborhood near Steel’s that also is plagued with parking hassles. Kendrick parked numerous junk cars on area streets, prompting several complaints.

Then, city officials checked their records and uncovered what they called startling results.

Although 98% of 44,000 permit-holders had three permits or fewer, Kendrick and Steel then had 29 and 22, respectively.

“We just never understood that such a loophole existed where people could hoard these permits,” said Newsom, who is sponsoring the new city parking permit ordinance. “Since parking spaces are such a rare commodity, we need to treat everyone fairly.”

Greg Scott, president of a nearby homeowners association, said parking has been an issue for years around Steel’s mansion.

“At one point a few years back, when her children were younger, there were a couple large vans--the kinds hotels use--to transport the kids, and they were always parked on the street,” he said.

Standing outside his consulate building near Steel’s home, German Consul Klaus Scheliga shook his head when asked about the author’s parking permits.

“I do not want to get involved with local politics,” he said. “But there is a shortage of parking here. And all of her permits certainly do not help.”

At the famous City Lights bookstore, which doesn’t carry Steel’s books, clerk Richard Berman explained the issue this way: “Rich people get away with stuff regular people don’t.”

Customer Victor Namuche agreed. “I live in super-crowded North Beach, but I still get just one parking permit,” he said. “I’d love to get 25 more to give all my friends. But that’s not the way the world works.”

Parking officials hope that those parking discrepancies will soon be part of the past.

“We never intended to provide cheap on-street parking storage for people with too many vehicles,” said Diana Hammons, a spokeswoman for the Department of Parking and Traffic. “You can’t own a dozen cars and expect to park them on city streets.”