At a community meeting Thursday night, South Berkeley residents discussed whether to preserve the flea market on the Ashby BART parking lot, or relocate it to make way for housing. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

During the week, it’s occupied by rows of parked cars. Over the weekend, vendors hawk second-hand clothes and succulents, to a drum-circle soundtrack.

In the future, the Ashby BART parking lot and flea market could give way to a housing development.

About 100 residents gathered Thursday evening in the Longfellow Middle School auditorium to tell city officials what they’d like to see at the lot down the line. Most of the speakers who lined up to make calm, yet sometimes emotional, pleas for an hour and a half, called either for the development of affordable housing on the lot, or for the preservation of the Berkeley Flea Market, which takes over the space every Saturday and Sunday.

Mayor Jesse Arreguín, City Councilman Ben Bartlett, who represents South Berkeley, BART Director Lateefah Simon, whose district includes the Ashby station, and Berkeley Planning Director Timothy Burroughs sat facing the speakers, taking notes on their requests and occasionally interjecting.

The future of the Ashby BART lot will be included in the Adeline Corridor Plan, a long-range vision for a 100-acre stretch of South Berkeley. That effort, funded with a Metropolitan Transportation Commission grant, has been in the works for three years now, with a change in the contractor delaying the project.

“We’re about to get very specific about what this plan will say,” Burroughs told the crowd Thursday.

Arreguín told the residents there is no proposal for the Ashby lot yet, but said the city has set a goal of 50% affordable housing on the site.

“As the housing crisis deepens, it’s important that we explore the potential development of city sites for affordable housing,” the mayor said. Berkeley owns the “air rights” to the lot (BART owns the underground space), so the city has the authority to decide what to develop on it, but officials are working together with BART.

The mayor said he and Bartlett are committed to keeping the flea market in South Berkeley.

Bartlett had kicked off the meeting by acknowledging the history of the station area. South Berkeley, once home to a large Japanese-American community, saw an influx of African-American residents after World War II. Redlining prevented those black residents from buying homes in many neighborhoods throughout the city, and they were segregated below Martin Luther King Jr. Way, then called Grove Street. That black community built a thriving commercial district around what later became the Ashby BART station.

“They were cordoned off, not allowed to participate to the north, to the east, so they built their own lives, right there — shops, stores, cobblers, food, prosperity, they made history,” said Bartlett on Thursday. Then, BART came in and “decimated commercial zones where the people had lives.” BART was initially set to run above ground, but activists led by Mable Howard feared the plan would further racially divide the neighborhoods and pollute the area. They pushed to underground it, eventually suing BART and winning.

Since that era, the black population in South Berkeley, and throughout the city, has dropped sharply.

Simon said she knew importance of the flea market to that community. Her own father, a “black revolutionary,” sold incense, sans permit, at the market, “to survive.” But she stressed the critical need for affordable housing too, with job creation far outpacing construction in the Bay Area. 

Officials addressed the crowd briefly, but spent most of Thursday’s meeting taking in public comments. From left: City Councilman Ben Bartlett, Berkeley Planning Director Timothy Burroughs, BART Director Lateefah Simon and Mayor Jesse Arreguín. Photo: Natalie Orenstein
Officials addressed the crowd briefly, but spent most of Thursday’s meeting taking in public comments. From left: City Councilman Ben Bartlett, Berkeley Planning Director Timothy Burroughs, BART Director Lateefah Simon and Mayor Jesse Arreguín. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

A number of people who came to the meeting agreed with her, with several asking for “truly” affordable housing, not a promise of affordable housing whittled down to just a handful of below-market-rate units.

“Poor people, people of color, are being just shooed out the door to make way for these big buildings,” said one speaker.

Mary Stackiewicz, a member of Youth Spirit Artworks, asked for consideration for youth and senior housing. A brand new mother, Stackiewicz said she used to be homeless in Berkeley but is now housed in Hayward and can attest to the benefits of stability and a place to sleep.

“My neighbors are living on the street,” said Zoning Adjustments Board member Teresa Clarke, an affordable housing developer and longtime South Berkeley resident. “We have to approve housing, whether it’s affordable or market-rate, and our zoning board is not approving it.” She said she supports the transfer tax coming up on the November ballot and others means of funding such projects.

“Technically, by the terms and the way people have talked about it, I’m a gentrifier,” said another speaker, Matthew Lewis, to a couple incredulous chuckles from an otherwise silent crowd. “I got pushed out of San Francisco because I couldn’t afford to live there anymore. So I moved to Berkeley, where I can afford it. I bought my house from an elderly African-American woman who was selling her house and moving to Pasadena to retire…I just want to point out there’s more of us coming,” he said, calling for more building, to make room for “more neighbors.”

Many speakers also implored the officials to keep the Berkeley Flea Market intact, some asking for it to remain at the Ashby lot.

Flea market general manager Joe Cokes said the market is already a force against displacement itself. He grew up in Berkeley with his father keeping the family afloat by selling at the flea market for 20 years straight.

“You don’t need a big college education,” Cokes said. “If you can get out there and sell, $70 a week, you can make something for yourself. People talking about affordable housing tonight. A lot of these people are very educated, they have homes, they have money in the bank. They don’t know what it is to be broke, be poor, be on welfare.” If the housing won’t be truly affordable, and really for the “tech kids coming here and raising prices,” he said he’d rather see an investment in the market, like recycling bins, a portable stage or solar panels.

About 100 people came to a community meeting on the future of the Ashby BART parking lot at Longfellow Middle School on Thursday. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

One speaker, Alfred Twu, presented a vision for a fusion of the two potential uses of the lot. Twu, who is running for Berkeley City Council in District 8, supported building housing with the ground floor remaining in “community control.” Instead of generic chain stores, Twu pictured a nonprofit-run “town square,” with permanent vendors both indoors and outdoors, live music and fruit stands.

Though the site is currently filled with cars every weekday, not a single speaker asked for it to remain a parking lot. According to materials distributed by BART at the meeting, the Ashby station has 600 spaces and 6.3 acres of parking total, split between the main lot and a smaller one behind the Ed Roberts Campus across Adeline.

Out of the 10 most walked-to BART stations, Ashby is the only one with a parking lot, according to BART. It has the seventh highest share of passengers walking to the station out of all BART stations. According to the document, 18% of passengers drove to the station in 2015, while 59% walked.

Arreguín concluded the meeting by praising the speakers.

“I think tonight represents the best of Berkeley,” he said. “We were able to have a civil and really incredible conversation. What I heard was a lot of commonality — three main things: We want to keep the flea market in South Berkeley, there’s openness to building…and the priority is truly affordable housing.”

“Let’s make this happen,” Arreguín said. “Anchor and really rebuild this neighborhood. For far too long, South Berkeley has gotten the short end of the stick.”

The draft Adeline Corridor plan is slated for release in the fall or early 2019, with the final plan and the Environmental Impact Report projected to come out next spring.

A similar meeting was held in March to consider the possibility of building housing on the North Berkeley BART station lot too.

"*" indicates required fields

See an error that needs correcting? Have a tip, question or suggestion? Drop us a line.

Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...