Cohen: Flea market plan boosts vendor voices, collaboration
San Jose Flea Market vendors fear displacement from a new plan to develop the site. File photo.

On Tuesday, the San Jose City Council will vote on rezoning the Berryessa BART Urban Village, the property adjacent to the BART station where the Berryessa Flea Market is currently located.

Building vibrant, high-density Urban Villages along public transit routes is one of the most effective ways to transition away from a car dependent culture. With BART operating in Berryessa, it is imperative that high-density development takes shape to ensure this community evolution takes place.

Unfortunately, the council did not address the displacement of the small, mostly immigrant-owned businesses at the Flea Market in any of the previous zoning decisions for the site. The property owners did commit in 2007 during the original rezoning of the site to try to find a permanent alternative location for the market, but no sites came to fruition.

The 2007 rezoning required the Flea Market to remain open for the subsequent five years but there were no other plans to protect the vendors from displacement. Now, the council can rezone the south side of the site to increase the number of new housing units – including the affordable housing required by the city’s Inclusionary Housing Ordinance – add commercial space to support up to 11,000 jobs, fulfill our Climate Smart goals, and build neighborhood parks and creek trails, while simultaneously addressing vendor displacement.

This rezoning will create a pathway toward La Pulga 2.0 and provide long-term plans to prevent the displacement of hundreds of vendors who are part of the vibrant community market.

This issue is currently before the City Council because in 2016 the council required the landowners, the Bumb family, to submit a rezoning plan to increase the density of the development near BART. Having fulfilled their obligation to submit this new zoning application, the Bumb family is not required to provide any further additions or amendments to the proposal.

If this zoning fails to pass, they would have the legal right to develop the site within the scope of the 2016 entitlements. The city has no leverage to require any concessions on developing the flea market.

Although San Jose desperately needs housing development, the process and community involvement has not been ideal. This became evident to me shortly after I took office. The voice of the vendors wasn’t adequately included throughout the process over the past 15 years, but this proposal lays the groundwork for future collaboration.

My office began engaging the vendors early this year, opening lines of communication, and working with the Bumb family to address the concerns expressed to us.

From many conversations over several months with the Flea Market Vendor Association, we learned they have four priorities: 1) space for a recreated market; 2) security – maintaining current operations for as long as possible and providing as much advance notice as possible for changes that would affect their operations; 3) economic relief for vendors; and 4) inclusion in the design and operation of the new market.

With the help of city staff, the District 4 office worked extensively with the property owner to draft a voluntary agreement to meet these priorities. Once this agreement is codified with the council vote, these conditions will have to be followed for development to proceed. The agreement includes:

  • Five acres set aside for a reimagined flea market. Current vendors will be guaranteed first opportunity to rent space, with rents that are comparable to nearby open-air markets, such as the Capitol Flea Market. Some say that five acres isn’t enough to accommodate all the vendors currently occupying 15 acres, but we don’t know yet what the public market will look like. There is no intention to limit the market to a single-story. The developer will evaluate how a multi-story market can be constructed on the site in the spirit of other vibrant urban markets around the world, accommodating as many vendors as possible. I am also committed to identifying additional locations in the area to fit more vendor stalls, such as under the BART tracks and around the station.
  • A one-year notice before a potential closure of the current site. That notice will not come before July 2023 so there is a minimum of three years before any changes could occur. There is much opportunity for collaboration in the design of the market within that time. The agreement also includes a commitment that all vendors who follow the rules and terms of their rental agreement shall not be evicted from the Flea Market prior to closure.
  • A Vendor Business Transition Fund to assist the vendors with expenses that may arise due to disruptions during construction. The property owner will provide the first $2.5 million for the fund, and community donations and grants will augment those resources.
  • Vendor inclusion, which will make them integral going forward. This agreement will create a Flea Market Advisory Group that includes vendor representatives. The Advisory Group will make recommendations on the design of the reimagined market and will make all decisions about the use of the transition fund.

There are calls to postpone council action on this rezoning to “allow more time” but the voluntary agreement to be codified with the rezoning is what will give the vendors more time. It will give them a definitive time frame for the closing of the Flea Market in its current form and provide time to decide how to use the transition fund and how to best assist the current vendors moving forward.

It’s important to acknowledge that the voice of the vendors has not been included in the process for the past 15 years.

I am confident that by approving this agreement, the City Council lays the groundwork for collaboration as the development plans move forward. This action begins a new collaborative process and we look forward to working together to carry this inclusive project across the finish line.

David Cohen is a San Jose councilmember first elected in 2020 to represent District 4, which spans Berryessa, North San Jose and Alviso.

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