Downtown church decided to sell to Google amid fear of eminent domain
The property at Templo La Hermosa, located at 56 S. Montgomery St., is in the process of being bought by Google. Photo courtesy of Waymark.

Fears of displacement as Google charges forward with its mega-campus in downtown San Jose started to become a reality late Tuesday night.

Members of Templo La Hermosa, a church located at 56 S. Montgomery St., asked the City Council for approval to move their church to 2222 Trade Zone Blvd. – an area that’s primarily zoned for jobs and industrial activities. But the church has nowhere else to go – it’s being forced to move after 70 years and attempts to relocate elsewhere have been unsuccessful and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

And Pastor Erasmo Zuniga revealed Tuesday for the first time that the decision to sell the church land came out of fear that San Jose would invoke eminent domain on the property.

Church leaders have been in talks with Google over their land, which neighbors public property the tech giant purchased from the city last year for its new campus. While county records show that the sale has yet to be finalized, Zuniga said that Google was waiting for the church to settle on its new home before sealing the deal.

A spokesperson for Google would not comment on the status of the sale.

“What would happen to us, what would happen to our church if this project had already been approved?” Zuniga told the council.

“We consulted with a legal expert to give us advice on what would happen to us,” he added. “His advice was to negotiate with Google because if the city wanted to they could exercise eminent domain, and because of that we saw ourselves in the need unfortunately to sell our church.”

Mayor Sam Liccardo emphasized to Zuniga that the city would never invoke eminent domain, which happens when a government entity takes private land for public use and economic development, for a private company like Google.

Liccardo added that the Google project has yet to be approved beyond the extent of the city selling acres of its own land.

In an interview Thursday, City Attorney Rick Doyle said that San Jose rarely invokes eminent domain and could only recall a few instances in the last ten years.

“We only do it as a city as street widening, if you have to help relocate telephone lines going underground, (or) public easements,” he said. “Usually it’s street widening.”

Community displacement

Tuesday’s plea from the congregation, which stood a few dozen strong at City Hall, revealed that this wasn’t the first site for relocation that church leaders had proposed to the city.

Alexander Nunez, Templo La Hermosa’s lawyer, said the church had suggested multiple sites in the last six months and had spent anywhere from $300,000 to $500,000 in the process. Some of that money came directly from Google.

“Frankly, if I had known that relocating our church from one side of San Jose to another would have been that emotionally and financially costly, we would not have sold our building,” Zuniga said.

He declined to provide additional details to San José Spotlight at the advice of the church’s legal counsel.

Councilmember Sergio Jimenez called the church’s struggle to relocate “the first example of displacement.”

“Many of us feared that would come along,” he said to his fellow councilors. “I know that’s a big statement, but I think it’s important to say… We as a city perhaps failed you to tell you this is not allowed or this is not what it’s going to take.”

Councilmember Maya Esparza, a newly-elected lawmaker who did not vote on the Google land sale, echoed Jimenez’s sentiment in an interview Wednesday.

“I think the discussions about displacement have largely centered on residential displacement in the past,” Esparza said. “(Tuesday) is an illustration of community displacement. We as a city can help businesses and community organizations find a home.”

Esparza added that the church’s decision to sell out of fear of eminent domain came as a surprise to her.

“This church had been in this location for 70 years and did not want to leave,” she said.

The church’s right to sue

With the city already having denied Templo La Hermosa a new home at multiple sites, councilors grappled with whether 2222 Trade Zone Blvd. would be the right location.

Councilmember Lan Diep wanted to grant the church conditional use of the site for 10 years and then reevaluate. The decision, he said, was a compromise since the land is zoned for job development and transit as BART makes its way to San Jose.

“Given every other pressing issue we have as a community, more often than not, jobs lose out,” he said. “On this particular site, I’m saying that jobs should not lose out.”

Because of the industrial nature of the land, Liccardo asked Nunez if the church would waive its right to sue its neighbors if the church is unhappy with nearby labs or manufacturing facilities.

“It would be really easy for me to get behind this and cheer if you were willing to accept a condition that said, ‘We’re not going to sue if somebody near us is doing what’s consistent with their zoning,'” he said.

Nunez shot back that the church leaders weren’t “litigious people” and would not advise his client to accept those terms.

In a split decision, a majority of councilors voted for a compromise that would allow Templo La Hermosa to occupy the Trade Zone Blvd. location and negotiate with city officials regarding the businesses around them. At the request of Diep, councilors also approved exploring ways to “support more intensive, transit-oriented uses” near the church.

Councilmembers Dev Davis, Pam Foley and Diep cast the dissenting votes.

Contact Grace Hase at grace@sanjosepotlight.com or follow @grace_hase on Twitter.

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