As Flea Market Vendors Continue Hunger Strike, San Jose Has Limited Options on Redevelopment Proposal

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Image Credit: Market Park San José

By Vladimir Bosanac

In a session that lasted late into the night and continued later this morning, the City Council of San Jose took on one of the most controversial projects that the city has seen in a long while. The City’s review of a plan to redevelop the beloved Flea Market, La Pulga, reached fever pitch last night and ended at midnight at an impasse that will likely leave the most impacted group there without much change. In front of the City Hall, Flea Market vendors have been on a hunger strike, and over 300 people called into the City Council meeting to oppose the massive project and support their fellow citizens fighting to preserve a cultural and economic engine of the Latino and Vietnamese community of San Jose. Yet, the decision on this project has been granted years ago, and while the council admitted even today that the project’s scale and purpose may be out of touch with today’s needs, the City’s hands are likely tied.

At stake during this week’s City Council meeting was the decision to move forward with the Berryessa BART Urban Village Plan as well as the rezoning for the property located at 1590 Berryessa Road, better known as the San Jose Flea Market development as proposed in 2018, or defer a decision by another 90 days, allowing additional time for the participants to discuss some, if any, alternatives that the development team would offer. A development proposal brought on by San Jose-based firms Borelli Investment Company and The Schoennauer Company on behalf of the site’s owner, the Bumb family, to create a mixed-use project that would bring 3,450 residences and up to 3.4 million square feet of commercial, office and retail space on a lot adjacent to San Jose’s Berryessa BART Station.

The meeting kicked off a brief procedural discussion around the City Council voting and if that would require public comment. Mayor Liccardo opted to hear the public feedback on this project, a prescient decision in light of the recent public outcry over the pending Flea Market closure. Days before the meeting, a group of affected vendors whose livelihood depends on the Flea Market went on a hunger strike to oppose the proposed redevelopment of the market and the future of 430 vendors whose businesses depend on it.

The Flea Market has a rich history that began in 1960, when George Bumb, Sr., the patriarch of the family, opened it with only 20 vendors at the time. Today, La Pulga, as it is affectionately called by those who visit it frequently, attracts over four million visitors a year, and countless small businesses and families trace their roots to this market. Furthermore, the market is a major source of income for its vendors and a vibrant part of the community, and it is mainly frequented by monitories, people of color and immigrants. The closure and redevelopment of this property, therefore, would disproportionately affect those groups.

“The Flea Market is a treasure. It is an institution. It is an incubator and an example of entrepreneurship and hard work and all of the things we should be proud of,” said Vice Mayor Chappie Jones.

The developer’s representative, Eric Schoennauer, addressed the City Council in a manner not often seen in a public meeting. His tone was direct, unapologetic and insensitive to the pleas of the community or the millions who will be affected directly or indirectly by the displacement of the market. He also offered the city an ultimatum to accept its proposal or risk losing the incentives the developer offered altogether. “As staff indicated, we already have a project approved by the City Council in 2007. That project has 1,800 units, 210,000 square feet of commercial [development], no commitment to affordable housing on site, no market plan in the development and no proposed vendor support,” Schoennauer said. “Tonight the Council has a binary decision, either approve the urban village plan and the new project that’s before you, or we move forward and develop the project that’s already approved. Any delay, any denial and we simply build the project that the council approved in 2007.”

In the end, he blamed the City Council for the scale of the project and specifically called out City Council members who were on the council in 2016 when the project was redesigned to include additional development. “A reminder that in May 2016 it was the City Council that directed us to bring you this new zoning. On that council was Councilmember Peralez, Councilmember Carrasco, Councilmember Liccado and Councilmember Jones. All voted to tell us to bring this new zoning before you because you wanted more jobs,” said Schoennauer.

The development team was granted permission to redevelop the Flea Market back in 2007, and that approval did not offer any concessions for the vendors, no financial help for the businesses operating in the market, no affordable housing component or a new location for the market. In 2016, the City Council, according to Schoennauer, asked the development team to broaden the scale of the development because the city was focused on adding jobs. This resulted in a dramatic increase of project goals, while also providing some benefits to the vendors, such as a 5-acre community market, an affordable housing component and a $2.5 million financial assistance fund for the vendors, among a number of other incentives.

The ultimatum threatened the City Council with taking away all of those benefits and going back to the development that was approved in 2007. Schoennauer was unrepentant.

Naturally, the public was in disbelief and shock, and the comments that followed focused on the aggressive posturing by the development team and threats from the public that the City Council, should it approve the project, will all be voted out in the next election.

Nearly all the public comment was in opposition to the proposal and wanted to defer the vote by another 90 days. Nearly all the comments were in support of the striking vendors and pleading with the council to consider the impact their decision will have on millions of people. 

A caller from Seattle supported the vendors. Another announced that he, too, was on a hunger strike for the past 36 hours in support of the vendors who were in front of City Hall.

Mayor Liccardo initially announced that he would close public comment at 10:45 PM, but then he extended that to 11:30 PM, and the calls continued coming in. Some members of the public spoke in Spanish, some questioned that if a similar fate was awaiting Little Italy in San Jose, would the City act differently.

At the end of the public comment period, Councilmember Peralez, who along with Councilmember Carrasco and Vice Mayor Jones opposed the current plan, suggested that his position was not to vilify those who disagree with him, but in turn provide a better solution for all the parties involved. Councilmember Cohen then put forward a motion that took into account several proposals from various council members in order to ameliorate at least in the slightest bit the impact of the redevelopment.

However, it was Mayor Liccardo who in the end summarized that the City’s hands were tied, and that it had little legal remedy at this point. He underscored, albeit more elegantly, the choices proposed by Eric Schoennauer hours before, and asked the City Council to reconvene in the morning for a final vote.

In the morning, the City Council voted 6-5 to continue discussion in six days’ time, with the hope of giving officials more time to consider the needs of the vendors. According to Schoennauer, however, the Bumb family would not guarantee that in that time its community benefits package would still be available. 

“It is time to make a decision,” said Schoennauer. “It just goes on and on and on.”

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