‘A dangerous sign’: San Jose leaders fail to reach consensus on Flea Market’s future

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Alas, the future of the historic 61-year-old San Jose Flea Market is still in doubt.

That future will undoubtedly feature a mix of homes and office buildings instead of a sea of stalls where dozens of vendors currently sell their wares to throngs of deal seekers from throughout the Bay Area. But just how many vendors may still be around when the current site is redeveloped and how much financial assistance they’ll receive to offset income losses stemming from the current market’s closure remains to be seen.

At the end of a contentious meeting that continued into a second day and lasted 15 hours, the San Jose City Council voted 6-5 to postpone a key decision on a years-in-the-making plan to convert the 61.5-acre Flea Market site of the current Flea Market — known as La Pulga to many Spanish-speaking residents — to an urban transit-oriented neighborhood with new apartment complexes and office towers adjacent to the Berryessa BART station.

Mayor Sam Liccardo and councilmembers David Cohen, Dev Davis, Pam Foley and Matt Mahan dissented.

Despite a half of a dozen proposals from city council members looking to balance the property owner’s mission to redevelop the property and concerns from vendors regarding their displacement, San Jose leaders could not reach an agreement on how to best move forward and they deferred their decision for at least one week. This marks the latest in a series of delays for the owners of the property who are looking to transform the site.

“Much like any type of negotiation, I think there is room for movement and I understand that there is a threshold for the Bumb family, but I also think there is an opportunity to achieve even better for everyone involved,” councilmember Raul Peralez said in an interview.

In recent weeks, councilmember David Cohen has worked with the property owners and vendors to broker a deal between the two parties. As of Wednesday, that deal included a guarantee that the market will remain open for at least three years before construction forces it to close, that vendors would have access to a $2 million fund to navigate the uncertainty ahead and that 5-acres within the development would be set aside to create a smaller version of the flea market on the site.

Acknowledging that the new 5-acre market will not provide enough space for all of 430 vendors and that $2 million will not be enough to provide them all with financial stability into the future, the councilmembers agree that seeking additional public funds to offset vendors’ losses and searching for an additional site to move the flea market to in the future is an important next step. But some councilmembers want to see that nailed down sooner than later.

Those who voted against delaying the decision worried that the postponement could torpedo the deal and hurt — rather than help — the vendors.

“I’m particularly nervous for the flea market, for the vendors and for my district about the potential risk we would be putting any agreement in,” Cohen said. “I would hope that the applicant will continue forward because this I think is a good deal for everyone.”

Vendors and their advocates say that city leaders and the property owners are trying to rush the deal through and are not fighting hard enough to protect their livelihoods.

We are in a dire situation with the pandemic, ongoing displacement of residents and now we see continuous displacement of small business owners, of our flea market vendors as we call them,” said Victor Vasquez of Somos Mayfair, a nonprofit organization operating out of East San Jose. “It’s a dangerous sign of our times and we must unite.”

In the decades since George Bumb Sr. founded the market in 1960, the storied swap meet has grown to become one of the nation’s largest outdoor markets, attracting upwards of 4 million visitors a year. San Jose’s flea market has not only provided visitors and nearby residents with a fun place to bargain for goods, but also given thousands of Bay Area residents the chance to become an entrepreneur. Although the market has shrunken over the years, about 430 vendors currently occupy approximately 750 stalls.

Plans to redevelop the flea market began in 2007, when the concept of extending BART to San Jose was still in its early stages. The council initially approved the property’s rezoning back then under the condition that the flea market would remain open for at least the next five years, but city leaders at that time made no further efforts to preserve the market nor protect vendors from displacement.

In 2016, city leaders pushed the property owners, the Bumb family, and their developers to build denser and taller structures on the site to better support the new public transit line and reduce residents’ carbon emissions and reliance on cars. Still, no effort was made to find a new site for the market nor offer any financial assistance or aid to the vendors.

The decision the council has in front of them now is whether to give the developer the green light to increase the total number of new residential units on the site from 2,468 to 3,450 and expand the amount of  commercial space from 315,022 square feet to as much as 3.4 million square feet. And, for the first time in the lengthy redevelopment planning process, it could finally provide some assurances for vendors.

In urging council members to approve the rezoning, Erik Schoennauer, a land-use lobbyist representing the Bumb family, gave them an ultimatum — approve the new rezoning plans as proposed or the property owner would move forward with the less dense development plans passed in 2007, which did not include any on-site market nor financial boosts for vendors.

“Any delay, any denial, and we build the project approved in 2007,” he told the city council.

Jeffrey Buchanan, director of public policy of Working Partnerships, an organization advocating on behalf of the flea market vendors, characterized Schoennauer’s statements as “gangster-like threats” and urged the council to delay the vote. Members on the council asserted that Schoennauer was just “posturing.”

The Berryessa Flea Market Vendors Association have asked for a 90-day deferral to continue negotiations with city leaders and property owners. They wanted the Bumb family to offer five-year leases to current vendors and provide $28 million — rather than $2 million — if the market moves or closes after those leases would end in 2026.

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“It’s not fair or right that we’ve been hidden or put in the shadow for so long,” said Roberto Gonzalez, president of the association. “We are asking for a deferral on this vote so that we can collaborate and find a solution that will beneficial to everyone.”

Gonzalez is one of a handful of flea market vendor leaders who on Monday announced an indefinite hunger strike to protest the flea market’s rezoning and their lack of inclusion in the process for years.

The proposed development will be a major component of the city’s Berryessa BART Urban Village, a blueprint for the massive project that aims to transform the area around San Jose’s first BART station into a dense, transit-centered neighborhood with up to 4.2 million square feet of new office space and 5,100 new housing units.

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