San Jose landmark in danger of further deterioration
The landmark First Church of Christ Scientist building is located at 43 E. St. James St. in downtown San Jose. Photo by Ben Irwin.

    A blighted downtown San Jose landmark is at risk of further deterioration after the tarps and scaffolding that have surrounded it for years were suddenly removed.

    Preservationists are concerned about damage to the First Church of Christ Scientist building after a local business owner took matters into his own hands by removing coverings while conducting work at 43. E. St. James St. The church was constructed in 1905 and is on the Preservation Action Council of San Jose’s “Endangered 8” list of historical and architectural landmarks threatened by neglect and redevelopment.

    “We were concerned that (the tarp) was doing more harm than good by concealing the true condition of the building from the public. So on one hand, we’re glad that it’s now exposed,” Ben Leech, executive director of the preservation council, told San José Spotlight. “On the other hand, we always envisioned removing the tarp being part of a more thorough restoration process.”

    Jim Salata, founder of Garden City Construction, and a crew removed the tarp and scaffolding from the church building Tuesday, according to reporting by the Mercury News. Downtown residents have since hung a sign in front of the church building thanking Salata for “finally cleaning this mess up.”

    Salata did not respond to a request for comment.

    Residents have put up a sign supporting the removal of the tarps and scaffolding that surrounded the building. Photo by Ben Irwin.

    Councilmember Omar Torres, who represents the downtown area where the landmark building sits, said it’s unfortunate Salata chose to trespass to remove the tarp. All the city can do is fine him, Torres said, and now that he’s removed the tarp the city needs to be cautious against damage from weather and people.

    “If we have another winter like we did last winter, I’m just hoping that it doesn’t damage the church. As much as I hated seeing the bags, and so did our neighbors, it did preserve the building,” Torres told San José Spotlight. “Now the city needs to be vigilant that folks are not breaking into the building, that they’re not going to graffiti it and create even more blight.”

    The building lies fully-exposed and in clear disrepair—crumbling walls with exposed wood and boarded up windows. Leech said the building can’t just sit in it’s current state.

    “If this is the new status quo for the next few years, that’s a huge problem,” Leech said. “We can’t count on (Salata) to keep monitoring it. The city really needs a plan in addition to blaming Z&L … that’s no longer just an excuse.”

    China-based real estate firm Z&L Properties has owned the property for six years, though the building has been exchanged between the city and multiple developers since 2003 as a part of development deals that have failed to produce results.

    Z&L originally planned to build the “Park View Towers” project on the site, with 221 homes and almost 19,000 square feet of retail space, but it never got off the ground. 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 been selling off other properties since Li’s arrest, but company representatives have previously declined to say if the church site will be sold.

    Part of the development agreement with the city included renovating the landmark church building, which hasn’t happened.

    In June, the city put a hold on a proposal to spend $200,000 to weatherproof the building. Torres said he doesn’t want the city to spend money on a billionaire’s blighted property.

    “That’s going to set a dangerous precedent,” Torres said.

    Torres and Mayor Matt Mahan last week proposed increasing fines for negligent property owners of historic landmarks—despite Z&L not paying existing fines.

    At Wednesday’s Open Government and Rules Committee meeting, San Jose’s Economic Development Director Nanci Klein said most negligent property owners do not pay fines.

    At the meeting, city staff were not all in agreement with the most consequential part of Mahan’s proposal—finding a way to repurchase the building from Z&L—citing the time consuming process, bureaucratic pitfalls and the cost.

    “Of course it’s not going to be cheap,” Leech said. “But for the city to pretend that they even have a clue as to what the building needs? I don’t think they do.”

    Carolina Camarena, spokesperson with the city manager’s office, said the “yellow light” distinction from staff will allow the city to explore repurchasing and redeveloping the church building, which will include cost estimates.

    Leech said any numbers on refurbishing the building would likely be tied into development of the whole parcel, and would be much higher than just focusing on the historic church. He said the city doesn’t have time to wait for “magic thinking” about high-density, market-rate housing around the church—and that it’s not going to happen in the foreseeable future.

    “If we need to wait for (development) to get penciled out to address the church, it’s going to be languishing for years,” Leech said. “Focus on the church first, figure out the rest of the parcel later.”

    Contact Ben at [email protected] or follow @B1rwin on Twitter.

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