VTA to push out San Jose property owners for BART extension
Two buildings at the corner of Santa Clara and 3rd streets may be demolished after the VTA Board of Directors voted to take ownership of the buildings via eminent domain in order to make room for BART-related structures. Photo by Brian Howey

    The Valley Transit Authority will move forward with its plan to force out the owners and tenants of two buildings in downtown San Jose to make room for the future BART extension. 

    In a meeting this week, VTA’s board of directors voted to allow the agency to assume ownership of the buildings on East Santa Clara and North Third streets. The agency plans to demolish the buildings to build an emergency exit and vent system for the downtown San Jose BART station. Board member Otto Lee abstained.

    The move is the latest step in a controversial process called eminent domain, in which government entities can force owners to sell their properties when they’re needed for public projects.

    If the board takes control of the properties, it will displace 10 residential tenants and three businesses, including the downtown branch of Mexico Bakery and ENSO Bar and Night Club. The building’s owners said they were devastated by the board’s decision.

    “The first call we made after the meeting yesterday was to our tenants,” building co-owner Mariam Jalil told San José Spotlight. “They were very upset.”

    VTA will provide financial assistance to residential and commercial tenants, and help to find new homes and commercial spaces. But building tenants said they feel bulldozed by the agency.

    “They can do this, they can do that, but the trust level is seriously zero,” Muhammad Umer, one of the Jalils’ residential tenants, told San José Spotlight. “Money is not the resolution for our hardships.”

    Jalil and some of her tenants believe the agency gave preferential treatment to the owners of a lot next door to theirs, where they say VTA could build the structure without needing to demolish the buildings. Based on their own analysis of VTA’s project documents, the Jalils claim the public transit agency may have offered the owners of another lot behind their building a higher monthly rate for construction easements.

    Earlier this year, VTA made a fair-market offer of $6 million on the property and attempted to inform Jalils’ tenants of the relocation services available to them. But the couple refused to cooperate on principle, they said.

    The Jalils, who are Pakistani, claim the agency’s move might be a violation of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination against minority groups. Many of their tenants are people of color, too, Jalil said.

    She also said VTA’s measurements of the lot next door, which supported the agency’s argument that construction there was unfeasible, are flawed. Based on her own measurements, Jalil said there’s more space in the lot than the agency has let on. She wants VTA to investigate her claims, which she presented to the board Thursday, but she said the agency has ignored them.

    “The board should be asking these questions,” Jalil said. “VTA made a decision based on a flawed data.”

    VTA representatives maintain that, while technically possible, building the structure on the neighboring lot would delay the project by several years and add $200 million to the cost of the BART extension.

    “We cannot respond to unfounded allegations with no basis in fact,” VTA spokesperson Stacey Hendler Ross told San José Spotlight.

    VTA Board Chair Chappie Jones said that while the interests of small businesses are a priority for him, he believes VTA’s decision is the best one.

    “Based on my conversations with staff and the presentations to the VTA at the meeting last night, I’m convinced (VTA’s) measurements and methodology are accurate,” Jones told San José Spotlight.

    Jones also chairs the San Jose Small Business Advisory Task Force, which last month penned a letter to the VTA board requesting it delay the vote until the agency could gather more information and input from building tenants and owners.

    But after meeting with VTA staff, Jones changed his mind.

    “You have to make a judgement call: How much do you weigh the information from subject-matter experts versus the owners, who have good intentions, but don’t necessarily have that expertise?” he said.

    Jalil plans to explore her options for resisting the eminent domain procedures.

    “It is an uphill battle, but for us it’s about fairness and transparency,” Jalil said. “I feel like I have a fair point to prove. Shouldn’t someone hold them accountable to their words and their actions?”

    Contact Brian Howey at [email protected] or @SteelandBallast on Twitter.

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