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Regional Interests

San Jose Approves Plan to Radically Transform Flea Market Site

In a unanimous vote, the San Jose City Council on Tuesday approved a plan to rezone the 60 acres where the city’s decades-old flea market, one of the biggest in the state, now stands.

The decision comes after six days of tense negotiations between the owners of the property, who want to develop the area into a living and commercial complex space, and leaders of La Pulga, as the market is known in Spanish, who for months have fought to prevent hundreds of small businesses from being displaced.

“We didn’t get the whole cake that we wanted, but we got a slice and we’re at the table now. That’s what we’ve been fighting for,” Roberto González, president of the Berryessa Flea Market Vendors Association (BFVA), said on Tuesday, after the Council’s vote.

One of the main concerns of BFVA was that there was little input from the vendors in the process to decide what the new development will look like.

“We got a whole lot farther than where we were six months ago, when we were going to get a kick in the butt and a ‘see you later,’ said González. “Whenever there is an issue, we have to band together, fight together, and make sure that our input is sought after.”

The city’s approval of the rezoning plan comes after a surprise last-minute offer from the Bumb family, the long-time owners of the property, of a $5 million vendor-support fund. The market has been operating on the family’s property since 1960.

Erik Schoennauer, a land-use consultant who represents the family, noted in a statement that the new offer is twice as much as what was originally put on the table earlier this month.

Like the previous offer, the new deal sets aside 5 acres of the development for an “urban market” that would house some but not all of the businesses in the current marketplace, which sprawls across 18 acres.

“We have also agreed to offer six-month rent agreements to any existing vendor who wants to opt in,” Schoennauer said in his statement.

These guarantees strike a different tone from what Schoennauer said last week, when he warned wavering city officials that any delay in the vote would force property owners to revert to an earlier development plan that did not include any space for vendors.

Despite the threat, council members approved a continuance, which ended up delaying the vote by a week to allow for further negotiations.

“We were extremely afraid that being the 98% of the way there, we would potentially lose that agreement with those extra six days,” said Lam Nguyen, a spokesman for Councilmember David Cohen, who represents District 3, where La Pulga is located. “We at least, didn’t feel at the moment that the 2% was worth it.”

With little time left to spare, the owners agreed to restart negotiations with the BFVA and several city officials, including Cohen, who by the end of the week had ironed out the details for a new deal.

In addition to the $5 million allowance, the agreement guarantees that vendors can stay where they are for three years, before construction begins. The deal also establishes an advisory committee made up of vendors, city officials and the property owners, to manage the $5 million-transition fund and provide guidance on the design of the new 5-acre market site.

However, the agreement still requires for the flea market to make way for the proposed development, dubbed the Berryessa BART Urban Village, which includes 3 million square feet of office and retail space, and some 3,400 housing units.

City officials recognize that this plan will transform forever what is now considered an emblematic South Bay space.

“Everybody has memories in La Pulga,” said Councilmember Magdalena Carrasco, who worked with the vendors during the negotiations and ultimately voted in favor of Tuesday’s plan. “No matter how we change it, it’s going to be painful.”

The concessions granted by the ownership of La Pulga give Carrasco hope that the vendors will have significant input into the future design and governance of the new urban market site.

“We were able to get some these things across the finish line, not exactly everything that we wanted but it at least is a beginning,” she said.

A stall at the San Jose Flea Market that sells dry fruit, nuts, sweets and other snacks on May 28, 2021. (Adhiti Bandlamudi/KQED)

For many vendors, some of who have spent decades working at the flea market, this moment is a bittersweet one.

Cayetano Araújo, 65, has sold dry fruits, peanuts and other snacks at his stall for 30 years and feels frustrated that the winding rows of stalls and the wide spaces of La Pulga as they exist today will disappear in a few years’ time.

“The prosperity and progress of La Pulga must go hand-in-hand with that of its vendors,” Araújo said in Spanish this Tuesday.

His dream is that once the flea market site is transformed, vendors will get to own a space where their businesses can operate and they will no longer deal with the uncertainty of displacement. But even in the new plan, the Bumb family will still own the 60 acres of land.

“Our fight is to save our businesses and to have a space where we have dignity,” he said, and added that he and other vendors will continue to organize until they have “freedom to lead the market and independence to keep working.”

“These were our requests yesterday, today they are our demands,” Araújo said.

Copyright 2021 KQED