Downtown San Jose property owner neglects blighted building
The historic building on San Fernando and Third streets has been in disrepair with burn marks on the exterior brick wall for more than three years. Photo by Jana Kadah.

It’s been three years since a fire raged through the Lawrence Hotel building in downtown San Jose, but it looks like the fire happened just a couple of days ago.

Since the four-alarm fire on Jan. 7, 2021, the historic building on San Fernando and Third streets has been in disrepair with burn marks on the exterior brick wall, debris and a chained fence between the boarded up building and sidewalk. San Jose officials have tried to work with the property owner to get started on demolition and repairs, but their efforts have fallen flat — and owner Eagles Hills Property LLC is at risk of incurring hundreds of dollars in fines daily.

Rachel Roberts, deputy director of code enforcement, said it takes the city a long time before it considers implementing a daily fee. After issuing $4,600 in citations that resulted in response from the owner, there aren’t many options left. The property owner did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

“We did see a bit of a tennis match with this one,” Roberts told San José Spotlight. “There were points in time where they were in compliance and the property was secure…but then other points where we did have to take some enforcement action, and follow up just to make sure the owner was going to be taking those steps in a timely manner.”

Downtown San Jose’s commercial vacancy rates last year were the highest they’ve been in more than a decade, according to an October 2023 city report. The pandemic ravished downtown, and both office and retail spaces have sat vacant for years. At last count in May, downtown had more than 70 vacant storefronts. The city anticipates vacancy rates will continue to increase as offices downsize and tenant leases come up for renewal.

San Jose’s Downtown Manager Nathan Donato-Weinstein said the office vacancy rates have only increased since the last city report — and it doesn’t help having an eyesore in downtown’s most prominent corridors.

“It’s a little bit of a black hole on your walk around downtown, and it just affects the neighborhood negatively in multiple ways,” Donato-Weinstein told San José Spotlight. “It’s steps away from San Jose State University, from City Hall, from our world class theatre and art venues. This could and it should be a vibrant space for restaurants, bars, entertainment venues, just as it once was.”

San Jose properties are not allowed to stay vacant after 180 days unless they meet certain requirements, such as having active permits that demonstrate the property owner is moving forward with repairs or improvements.

The owner submitted a building permit application with a plan review filed in April 2023. The city responded, made comments on the electrical and building plan in March and May, but has not heard back from the owner. The permit was set to expire on Monday, but the property owner applied for an extension on April 12.

The building was once home to Bob Sidebottom’s comic book shop, a bookstore, shoe repair store and a number of restaurants, most recently Cinebar – one of San Jose’s oldest bars – and Chachos. Photo by Jana Kadah.

The developer also filed a demolition permit in August 2023, but work hasn’t started, with the property owner citing rainy weather as hindering progress, according to Cheryl Wessling, spokesperson for the department of building, planning and code enforcement. They have until August to complete the demolition. After that the permit expires.

“Now that we haven’t seen them make any progress, by getting inspections or starting construction or anything like that. They’re no longer eligible for that exemption,” Roberts said. “So now we’re able to say, ‘you haven’t made a faith effort to move this through the permit process, and so therefore, we’re gonna hold you accountable to doing that.'”

The property owner is likely to see daily fines of $100 to $250, which can increase to $2,500 per day, though that is usually reserved for the most egregious cases.

Wessling said it will likely be a few months before the fines are implemented because it needs to go before a board to have fines and penalties assessed and approved.

“The city is not interested in having a burned out building on a block anywhere in the city, but especially downtown where it has visibility and a lot of foot traffic,” Wessling said. “So the city’s not interested in dragging their feet on this at all.”

The building, which was once a hotel and apartment, has also been downtown haven for retail since in the past century. It was once home to Bob Sidebottom’s comic book shop, a bookstore, shoe repair store and a number of restaurants, most recently Cinebar – one of San Jose’s oldest bars – and Chachos – a favorite for San Jose State University students.

The Preservation Action Council of San Jose listed it as one of the top properties to preserve. The historic building was constructed in 1893 and one of the oldest surviving commercial buildings in downtown. Luckily, the fire did not destroy the facade, and Donato-Weinstein has faith it can be preserved.

“I think about what makes downtown special, and kind of different from anywhere else and a large part of that is the way our past is represented in these beautiful, historic buildings,” Donato Weinstein said.

Contact Jana at [email protected] or follow @Jana_Kadah on X, formerly known as Twitter.

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