Berkeley Flea Market Future in Doubt
Gentrification, a lack of housing, and fewer customers play into the future of the longtime Ashby BART outdoor bazaar.
Errol Davis, the Market manager, sees the outdoor bazaar at Ashby BART as economically important to the neighborhood.
Photo by Heather Finnecy
On a cold and drizzly Sunday, the Berkeley Flea Market is mostly empty. It’s not quite afternoon, but the vendors across the Ashby BART parking lot have already started packing up their wares.
Ernest Anderson, a vendor who has being selling items at the flea market for 16 years, said that heavy storms in February and March washed out several market days. But he noted that vendors are dealing with a bigger problem than rainy days.
“There’s a lack of customers,” Anderson said. “It might be a generational thing—younger people don’t know to come through here.”
Vendors have been selling various products in the Ashby BART western parking lot since the late 1970s, thanks to an informal agreement between BART and Community Services United, the nonprofit that manages the market. The arrangement granted CSU indefinite renewals on its concession permit, and in 1985, a Berkeley court upheld the validity of the agreement.
Over the years, the market has developed a complicated reputation in South Berkeley. The city has periodically raised various concerns about it, including complaints about the sale of stolen goods and disagreements among patrons and vendors. But the market has also been an important source of secondary and primary income for the hundreds of vendors who regularly set up stalls on weekends.
“For me it’s important. This market gives me my living,” said Catherine, a vendor who sells African art. She added that the Berkeley Flea Market is one of the only markets in the Bay Area where she can regularly find customers.
Errol Davis, who has been managing the Berkeley Flea Market for eight years, said that the market has also been a cultural anchor for South Berkeley’s African-American community. Unfortunately, he said, the market’s status in the community has started to fade as Ashby continues to experience demographic changes.
“Things have changed greatly in Berkeley,” Davis said. “The diversity has changed. There are a lot of gentrification issues here.”
The most recent sign of changes to come in the neighborhood came in the form of a priority development grant that the city of Berkeley was awarded in 2014 from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission.
According to Berkeley’s principal planner Alisa Shen, the $750,000 MTC grant—matched by funds put up by Berkeley—will be used to develop a long-range plan for the future of the Adeline Corridor, which runs for roughly 3 miles north from the Berkeley-Oakland border and includes the Ashby BART Station.
Shen said that the city spent the first phase of planning developing a long-term vision for the corridor, holding dozens of meetings with community members and surveying residents for their ideas. As part of the second phase, the city is collecting feedback from local businesses, shoppers, and visitors to get a better sense of traffic, parking, and spending patterns in the neighborhood.
“This is basically, primarily, a community-driven process,” Shen said. “The community leads in terms of what ideas are coming up for land-use policies and ideas.”
Unsurprisingly, housing has soared to the top of the list for many residents. Last year, an organization called Friends of Adeline was formed to promote the creation of new housing in the corridor. Ben Bartlett, a former Berkeley planning commissioner and a member of Friends of Adeline, said that as a fourth-generation Ashby resident, he has witnessed the struggle of long-term residents in the area to find affordable housing as Berkeley absorbs overflow from San Francisco.
“South Berkeley is in a housing crisis,” Bartlett said. “It’s created some tough circumstances for people who live here.”
One site that has previously attracted the interest of the city is the west parking lot of the Ashby BART Station. In a 2005 memo, the city said that the development rights for the western lot hadn’t been addressed, which was leaving “a significant hole in the fabric of the South Berkeley community.”
That same year, the city staff sought support for a Caltrans grant application to create a mixed residential and commercial development project on the west parking lot. But representatives from the market objected to it, and the proposal was eventually dropped.
Shen noted that the city’s new plan focuses on finding housing sites along the entire corridor, as opposed to just the Ashby parking lot. But CSU president Charles Gary said that he was concerned the city was still primarily interested in putting housing on the site of the flea market.
“Is there going to be housing out there? I can’t swear on my blood that it will happen, but I think there will be,” Gary said, noting that the city controls the air rights to the parking lot.
Robert Lauriston, an Ashby resident for 20 years who helped found Neighbors of Ashby BART in the mid-2000s to oppose residential development on the parking lot, said that fears over the future of the market are overblown.
“The market would have to choose to leave,” Lauriston said. “They’re in a strong position to do what they want, so their future seems to me secure.”
It’s difficult for vendors like Ernest Anderson to embrace this optimism. “This market has historical value because it’s been around for a long time,” Anderson said. “But it doesn’t have monetary value compared to what they would do with this space.”