With hundreds of flea market vendors holding their breath, a San Jose panel chose to pause discussions on a major development—at least for now.
At the center of the debate is a plan to densify a portion of the iconic flea market on Berryessa Road in San Jose. The proposal seeks to approve up to 3.4 million square feet of commercial space and up to 3,450 homes on 61.5 acres of the southern portion of the site. The entire 120-acre flea market site is currently zoned to include up to 365,000 square feet of commercial space and up to 2,800 residential units.
After six hours of heated debate, the San Jose Planning Commission voted 6-1 early Thursday morning to table the discussion and ask city officials to study creating a community benefits agreement between flea market vendors and developers. That study is due May 12.
Commissioners also encouraged the owners of the flea market, the Bumb family, to meet with vendors, although they are not required to do so.
“I think a win-win solution needs to be presented,” said Commissioner Jorge Garcia. “And it’s not here.”
As news spread about the developer’s plan to densify the project near the city’s only BART station, flea market vendors expressed fear that they might be forced out.
“We want to blossom with these new plans and keep our culture alive,” said Amada Gonzalez, a vendor whose father has worked at the market for more than 30 years. “Can you live the rest of your lives with a clear conscience, destroying people’s lives? Stripping them of their only way of survival?”
Commissioner Pierluigi Oliviero, the lone dissenter, questioned the legality of denying a recommendation for the project, saying the commission overstepped its boundaries to decide the fate of the project.
Public comment from more than 30 people stretched Wednesday’s meeting past midnight.
Many vendors and activists spoke out against the project, saying more development on the site could shut the flea market down completely, displacing small, mostly Latino and minority vendors. They urged the planning commission to reject the plan or postpone a vote.
“The flea market has been part of our hearts and culture,” said Lupe Verduzco, a vendor. “We don’t need a hero. We simply need someone to help us and not use us as a platform.”
A petition by the Berryessa Flea Market Vendors Association, a group representing the market’s 700-plus vendors, has been signed by more than 5,500 people as of Thursday. The petition demands that developers give vendors a bigger role in deciding what happens to the site.
Others suggested that the plans should include higher buildings for more housing and parking maximums, along with a space for a new flea market.
“We have got to build tall buildings in the 10th-largest city, San Jose,” said Alex Shoor, executive director of Catalyze SV, a nonprofit that presented amended plans for the project. “There is not enough building on this site for the amount of development we need, for the housing crisis to be solved.”
Land use consultant Erik Schoennauer, who represents the Bumb family, said vendors were kept in the loop about the project for more than three years. Both Schoennauer and the Bumb family have denied the flea market will permanently close, though it could be relocated.
The San Jose Flea Market vendors need your help!
La Pulga de San Jose pic.twitter.com/Cb2gilbF6C
— BERRYESSA FLEA MARKET VENDORS ASSOCIATION (@FleaVendors) March 22, 2021
“No vendor should be living in fear of waking up one morning and learning their business is closed. It should be business as usual at the flea market,” Schoennauer said.
The southern development at the flea market site is part of the area’s Berryessa BART Urban Village, a high-density housing and commercial area. The centerpiece of the village is the Berryessa BART station, which opened in June 2020.
The city and developers have pushed for more commercial and residential space in the area, believing that more development around BART will spur economic growth and create more than 14,000 new jobs. An increase in housing units, supporters say, would also help solve the region’s affordable housing crisis and reduce the city’s carbon footprint by placing residents into homes near mass transit.
“Change is hard, but this plan meets our general plan goals,” said Vince Rocha, housing director at the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, a nonprofit organization that advocates for affordable housing, environmental and transportation policy.
The flea market was established in 1960 by the Bumb family, who still own the property.
Neither the developers nor the city has presented a definitive timeline for the project. The project is estimated to cost $2.5 billion to $3 billion, Schoennauer said.
After a vote by the Planning Commission on May 12, the item will move to the City Council. Activists have promised to show up at that meeting, too.
“This is not a threat. This is a promise,” said Fatima Ortega, a former worker at the flea market who pledged to protest future actions that would shrink the flea market. “We are organizing and will do something about this.”