Dilapidated San Jose church repairs put on hold
The former First Church of Christ Scientist building in downtown San Jose is seen covered in torn tarps on Jan. 31, 2023. Photo by Joseph Geha.

    A plan by San Jose officials to protect a historic former church that has been all but ignored by its owner is now in limbo.

    The roughly 120-year-old former First Church of Christ Scientist near St. James Park in downtown may continue to be allowed to wither, as a proposal to spend $200,000 of city money to weatherproof it and board it up has been deferred, officials said. The San Jose City Council was scheduled to consider the plan on Tuesday. Now that may not happen until August, as the council goes on summer break later this month.

    Staff reports said the city would place a lien on the property, with coordination from the owner, to try and get its money back if and when the property is sold.

    Ben Leech, head of the Preservation Action Council of San Jose, which advocates for the protection of historic structures and sites, said he’s disappointed the city is putting off the decision to protect the church.

    “(We’ve) been calling on the city to intervene going on three or four years now, and while we have concerns that what is being proposed in the staff report is a stop gap, a Band-Aid, it’s a necessary Band-Aid,” Leech told San José Spotlight. “The reality is, (Z&L is) not doing the work, somebody needs to do the work.”

    The former church, located at 39 E. St. James St., has sat vacant for several decades. Z&L Properties, a China-based real estate firm, has owned the property since 2017. Law enforcement arrested its co-founder, Zhang Li, in London in December in connection with a bribery scheme out of San Francisco.

    Z&L has owned the former First Church of Christ Scientist building in downtown San Jose since 2017. Photo by Joseph Geha.

    Bob Staedler, a land use consultant, said San Jose leaders should have a full discussion about all of the city’s legal options, including taking back ownership of the building.

    “I think it’s really disconcerting that the city is willing to bail out a billionaire developer without a guarantee of repayment,” Staedler told San José Spotlight about the city’s now-deferred proposal. “This is a complicated issue with a bad actor corporation.”

    Nanci Klein, director of San Jose’s economic development department, said the city has been working with staff of Z&L, “trying to impress upon them that it’s much smarter for them to do the work themselves,” but it’s unclear what will happen.

    The city can fine the developer $1,000 for each day the property is in violation of the development agreement with San Jose, up to $100,000, plus some other one-time penalty fees, city reports said.

    Klein noted decisions from Z&L take longer than usual because they go through the chairman who is on house arrest in London, and the board of directors, based in China.

    The building and surrounding site was formerly a city-owned redevelopment property that was sold to Swenson Builders and later resold to Z&L with the city’s approval.

    Several years ago, Z&L wrapped the building in a protective sheath, but it later began to rip. Black tarps were installed, which also fell into disrepair. Leech compared the tarps to torn black trash bags.

    The developer planned to build the “Park View Towers” project on the site, with two buildings including 221 homes and almost 19,000 square feet of retail space, but the plan never got off the ground.

    Following Li’s arrest in December, more uncertainty has been thrown into a complex property management issue. But all the while, the church has become more of an eyesore, affecting property values and inviting trespassing, city reports said.

    “The church is not protected against wind and rain. The containment wrap and additional tarps are in tatters and an unsightly blight in the neighborhood,” a city report said. “It is clear from Z&L’s failure to act that the city must move forward with replacing the tarp, or identify an alternate method of protection, or risk significant damage to the building.”

    Yonggang “Frank” Cui, CEO of Z&L Properties, declined to offer much detail.

    “We are working with the city right now,” Cui told San José Spotlight. Asked if the company will sell off the church site, as it has begun trying to do with other sites it owns, Cui declined comment.

    Leech said the church building is one of roughly five to 10 “classical architectural landmarks” in the city, is prominently located on the park and deserves more care.

    “We really see it as an asset. We see the adaptive reuse potential and think that the struggles of the park are hard to ignore,” Leech said. “But the park could really be a very special place if we better leverage the architecture that exists around it.”

    Contact Joseph Geha at [email protected] or @josephgeha16 on Twitter.

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