San Jose flea market vendors go on hunger strike, lawmakers to decide market’s fate
Mariana Mejia, Roberto Gonzalez and Kaled Escobedo Vega, part of the leadership of the Berryessa Flea Market Vendors Association, announced Monday they will be going on a hunger strike. Photo by Lloyd Alaban.

After months of negotiations, rallies and protests, the fate of the San Jose Flea Market now rests with the San Jose City Council.

San Jose released Friday its final plan for the Berryessa BART Urban Village, a 3.4 million square foot project on the flea market site. The San Jose City Council is expected to approve it Tuesday.

On Monday, the flea market’s vendors announced an indefinite hunger strike to protest the plan and what they say is a lack of involvement in the historic market’s future.

“Mentally, we are prepared,” said Kaled Escobedo Vega with the Berryessa Flea Market Vendors Association. “We are so motivated, so strong, because this is a personal issue not just for us but for everyone that’s here with us. We are mentally prepared for whatever comes.”

Fellow association member Mariana Mejia said she’s risking her health and her life to do what’s right.

“The City Council and elected officials need to understand that we are second generation,” she said. “The vendors, for many years, had no rights, no voice. Now they have children. They have people who are here who will stand up for them. When there’s elections we will look at your vote and we will see where you stand.”

The market’s 430 vendors worry it will close permanently as development plans move forward, potentially displacing hundreds of small, minority-owned businesses. The proposal under consideration Tuesday shrinks the flea market vendor space from 15 acres to 5 acres, which will inevitably squeezing some retailers out. Lawmakers have suggested exploring using nearby spaces or building a multi-story market to fit the vendors.

As part of the plan, the Bumb family, owners of the flea market, have promised not to evict any vendors before the current flea market closes. The family will give vendors a one-year notice before they are asked to move out, issued no earlier than July 1, 2023.

The proposal also includes setting aside 5 acres for a reimagined but smaller flea market. The Bumb family will contribute $2.5 million to a fund to help vendors with relocation costs, with $500,000 going out by October and an additional $2 million once the family issues the one-year notice.

“It is incredibly important that the voices of the vendors are an integral part of the process going forward,” a city memo reads.

A flea market advisory group will be created to figure out how the money will be doled out, as well as how the new market will be designed and operated.

Right now, the  flea market site is zoned to include up to 365,000 square feet of commercial space and up to 2,800 residential units. The project under consideration Tuesday will rezone a 61.5-acre portion of the site for up to 3.4 million square feet of commercial space and up to 3,450 homes.

“Let’s make no mistake. This is a fight for justice,” said Chava Bustamante, executive director of Latinos United for a New America. “It’s not about land. It’s not about money. It’s about justice. It’s about dignity. Dignity for these vendors and families to make sure they have the ability to make a living.”

A proposed sketch of how the project’s final design could look like. The urban market is highlighted in red. Photo courtesy City of San Jose/Erik Schoennauer.

Mayor Sam Liccardo, Councilmember Sergio Jimenez and Councilmember David Cohen, whose district includes the flea market, outlined the series of proposals in a memo Friday. Cohen also wrote an op-ed for this news organization Saturday lauding the plan for including vendors’ voices.

The trio proposed giving existing flea market vendors the first opportunity to move into the new 5-acre market and called for rents to be comparable to other open-air markets in the Bay Area. A new vendor transition fund would be created to help cover moving costs.

The lawmakers also suggest creating a Flea Market Advisory Group—which would include a representative of the vendors—to provide input on the market’s parking design, how to spend money in the transition fund and how vendors will be offered a spot in the new market. The city’s Office of Economic Development will provide resources for the vendors before and after the transition. The owners could consider using the public and private streets surrounding the market to fit more vendors.

Roberto Gonzalez, president of the Berryessa Flea Market Vendors Association, says the association is open to “anything and everything,” including a multi-level market or relocation, so long as all vendors are accounted for.

“We’ve been having businesses there for over 30 years,” he said. “We just want to see that collaboration. Up to this moment, it’s been done behind closed doors by District 4 and the Bumb family. That’s not fair. That’s not just. What we’re asking for is a process we can trust in and we can put our input in and make sure our voices are heard.”

He said this isn’t just a District 4 issue, it’s a citywide issue.

“Every single councilmember has people that work there and live there and make a living there,” Gonzalez said. “It’s their responsibility to watch out for their constituents and their residents. We’re very hopeful that they’ll vote with that in mind.”

The vendors and their allies say the Bumb family is reaping financial benefits from publicly-funded transit improvements, including the nearby BART station, without consideration for the vendors’ livelihoods. Now, they added, the family will see even bigger profits from the addition of more housing and office capacity.

“As of now, there is no concrete plan to preserve most of the historic flea market or to protect the majority of the largely immigrant and family-operated vendors whose livelihoods rely on the continued operations of the market,” they said in a news release.

Erik Schoennauer, a land use consultant and the project’s representative, touts the nearly 11,000 jobs the development will bring. The project aims to build denser housing and more commercial space around the Berryessa BART station in hopes of providing better access to transit.

“We support the proposals by Councilmember Cohen, Councilmember Jimenez and Mayor Liccardo,” Schoennauer said. “This approach satisfies the highest priorities of the vendors, which are funding for the transition to a new market, plenty of time to plan the future and an active role in the advisory group.”

Cohen facilitated a proposal last month to preserve 5 acres of that space for an urban market, as the fate of the flea market up to that point was unclear. Earlier this month, the Bumb family and the city presented a revised agreement that included the vendor fund.

Gonzalez alleges that there’s been no communication from Cohen’s office.

“They’ve been doing their deals behind closed doors,” he said. “They present us some paperwork that they deal with. We gave them our counter proposal. It’s been two weeks. Haven’t heard back from their office.”

Vendors and activists at a Monday news conference outside City Hall. Photo by Lloyd Alaban.

Vendors have aggressively lobbied against the project, holding rallies and starting a petition to shelve the project.

The Berryessa Flea Market Vendors Association wants the Bumb family to grant 5-year leases to current vendors and $28 million if the market moves to public property after the leases end in 2026. They also asked the vote Tuesday to be delayed for 90 days.

While vendors say they haven’t been consulted on the flea market’s closure, city leaders say the plan to redevelop the space around the market to become a transit-oriented village dates back to 2003.

“Ever since 2003 when the decision was made to locate San Jose’s first BART station adjacent to the 120-acre Berryessa Flea Market, its closure has been a forgone conclusion,” read the memo.

The San Jose City Council meets Tuesday at 11 a.m. For details on how to watch and participate in the meeting, click here.

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

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