San Jose flea market vendors worry about its demise
Mariana Mejia, left, Roberto Gonzalez, center and Keila Escobedo Vega—Kaled Escobedo Vega's sister—hand out flyers informing vendors about the upcoming planning commission meeting. Photo by Lloyd Alaban.

The hustle and bustle at the iconic San Jose Flea Market ground to a virtual halt during the early days of the pandemic. But some are concerned that vendors might be shut down again—this time for good.

If that happens, vendors-turned-activists Roberto Gonazalez, Kaled Escobedo Vega and Mariana Mejia say they’d be losing a lot more than just a plot of land.

“The flea market, it’s like Disneyland for immigrants,” Gonzalez joked.

The trio worries the flea market will permanently close after learning the city is moving forward with plans for a mixed-use project on 61.5 acres of the flea market’s 120-acre site. They say their voices have been left out of the process, which leads them to believe the developers are looking to close the entire market.

Mejia, Gonzalez and Kayla Escobedo Vega review their petition. Photo by Lloyd Alaban.

The flea market’s owners and city officials have denied the market is shutting down.

“Most vendors are very aware of the proposed future development,” said Erik Schoennauer, a land use consultant representing the project.

The San Jose Planning Commission on Wednesday will consider rezoning the 61.5-acre southern portion of the site to allow for higher-density residential and commercial uses. Right now, the entire flea market site is zoned to include up to 365,000 square feet of commercial space and up to 2,800 residential units. The new plan under consideration Wednesday will seek to approve up to 3.4 million square feet of commercial space and up to 3,450 homes on the southern portion.

Developers and the market’s owners say they will eventually relocate the market. They haven’t said where.

The southern development is part of the area’s Berryessa BART Urban Village, a high-density housing and commercial area built around the city’s first BART station. The centerpiece of the village, the Berryessa BART station, opened in June 2020.

More than a market

The flea market on Berryessa Road is more than a place to sell things, vendors say.

Escobedo Vega, 22, said she wouldn’t have been able to afford college tuition without selling blankets at the market. Gonzalez, 29, has met several lifelong mentors there, including a Korean woman who sells in the stall next to him whom he affectionately calls “grandma.” Mejia, 19, started her own business selling handmade Mexican trinkets. Gonzalez called it the biggest business incubator in the region.

The patriarch of the Escobedo Vega family speaks to a customer. Photo by Lloyd Alaban.

Gonzalez is the president of the Berryessa Flea Market Vendor Association, a loosely-knit advocacy group that represents the approximately 750 vendors who set up shop at the market each weekend. Gonzalez, Escobedo Vega and Mejia formed the group to help other vendors—many of whom don’t speak English fluently or are undocumented—negotiate with the city and developers.

“We’re not against development,” he said. “We pay our fair share of taxes. We just want to have that respect given to us and be included in these plans.”

Activists, vendors and market workers say developers haven’t met with them to discuss the project. The planning commission’s vote to densify a portion of the site, however, will not affect the operations of the flea market itself, which will be left up to the Bumb family, the property’s owners, according to Schoennauer.

A digital mockup of the project. Photo courtesy of the city of San Jose.

An area of growth

If the commission recommends the rezoning and accepts an environmental impact report for the project, it will head to the City Council for a final vote April 27.

City officials say the development will boost BART ridership, adding 3.4 million square feet of commercial space and approximately 14,000 jobs. It’s a necessary step for a plot of land that sits next to the city’s only BART station—an opportunity to capitalize on commuters to bring in revenue to help the entire city, they say.

“The taxpayers are spending $9.2 billion to construct the BART extension to downtown San Jose,” Schoennauer said. “To be successful, it’s critical to build intense job development and dense housing to support ridership on the BART extension.”

As speculation swirled about the flea market’s potential closure, the association launched a petition pleading with city officials to reconsider. It had garnered more than 5,000 signatures as of Monday.

 

Vendors worry the proposed housing development will gentrify the neighborhood, displacing small, mostly Latino- and minority-owned businesses and vendors and replace them with luxury apartments.

“Why are you telling the vendors something else, and also telling the community something else,” Mejia said about the developers’ plans. “They did it because we’re trying to get the word out that they’re trying to close the flea market.”

A vendor shows customers the electronics he is selling. Photo by Lloyd Alaban.

According to Schoennauer, vendors will be given a one-year notice by the market’s owners if they decide to close the flea market. No such notice has been given. Schoennauer said vendors have been included in negotiations from the beginning.

“The flea market is open for business,” Schoennauer said. “Eventually, the flea market will have to relocate as the remainder of the urban village fills out. But that is years down the road.”

The area has undergone significant development in recent years, gradually shrinking the market’s footprint. The city’s first BART station opened near the site in June, and over a thousand new apartments have been built near the BART station along Berryessa Road over the past three years. A multi-business shopping center anchored by a Safeway will open next month.

A list of public meetings held either by the city, the developer or both. Photo courtesy Erik Schoennauer.

Neither the city nor the developers have said when the project will be completed. The association is hoping vendors can stay at the current site, but are also open to relocation and assistance from the city while they move.

“If they really wanted to, the developers could include us (the vendors) easily in their plans,” Gonzalez said. “But the developers and the landowners are just so hard set on their plan.”

Contact Lloyd Alaban at [email protected] or follow @lloydalaban on Twitter.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.