Months after work crews removed tattered tarps and worn wraps from a languishing, historic former church in downtown San Jose, preservationists are worried city officials have lost urgency around protecting the building for the long term.
The former First Church of Christ Scientist near St. James Park has been exposed to public view since late August, but multiple proposals from city officials last year to stem concerns over the fate of the building have since been ditched or are stalled.
“We haven’t seen follow-through by the city or the owner, so it’s sort of back to square one,” Ben Leech, head of the Preservation Action Council of San Jose, told San José Spotlight.
One proposal from Mayor Matt Mahan suggests enacting steeper fine maximums against the owners of blighted property.
The plan — aimed at organizations like China-based Z&L Properties, which has owned and ignored the church building for years — passed an initial city committee last August, but has yet to come back to the full San Jose City Council with plans from city officials on how such a policy might be put into place.
Another plan proposed by officials in June 2023 called for spending $200,000 of city money to weatherproof and board up the building was all but abandoned, largely over concerns of whether the city should spend its funds to help shore up a property owned by a neglectful owner. Both plans noted the end of 2023 as deadlines for city officials to report back to the full council.
Mahan suggested to San José Spotlight that progress is being made on his proposal.
“The time for cracking down on large negligent property owners like Z&L is long overdue. I’m expecting staff to return soon on how to best impose radically higher fines for landlords who let their buildings sit in blight and disrepair,” Mahan said. “Z&L should maintain their buildings or sell to someone that can.”
The former church, built in 1905 and located at 39 E. St. James St., has sat vacant for several decades. Real estate firm Z&L Properties has owned the property since 2017, and previously planned to build more than 200 homes there and renovate the church. Law enforcement arrested its co-founder, Zhang Li, in London in December 2022 in connection with a bribery scheme out of San Francisco.
Shortly after Mahan announced his proposal, Garden City Construction owner Jim Salata and crews entered the church building property by using a gate lock code he had from prior work there, according to The Mercury News. His crews removed the wraps and tarps, boarded up windows and repaired and patched portions of the roof, among other work.
Salata couldn’t be reached for comment.
Leech said the tarps offered little protection because they were so poorly maintained, and he’s confident Salata’s work has protected the building for now. But he added it’s not an indefinite solution.
“If we don’t have regular monitoring of the building, we don’t know if the condition is going to be deteriorating now that we’re going into the wet season,” Leech said. “We need to make sure water doesn’t get in there, we need to make sure that plaster doesn’t start spalling off the wood.”
Yonggang “Frank” Cui, the latest listed CEO of Z&L Properties in company filings with the state, declined to comment for this story.
Leech said he feels the city views the property as a development site with an inconvenient historic church building there, when it should be prioritizing solutions for the building.
“Nothing big is going to pencil out there anytime soon. But that doesn’t mean we can’t be investing in the existing building and finding creative uses for it,” Leech said.
Nanci Klein, the city’s economic development director, said the city has been in discussions with Z&L, and is trying to address concerns about the building among other issues that require the city’s time and money.
“The allocation and appropriate use of city funds is a significant and serious question. It doesn’t mean we don’t care about the building,” Klein told San José Spotlight.
One plan could be to use the city’s development agreement terms with Z&L to buy the property back at a low price.
“There isn’t any doubt in my mind that Z&L would contest that in court, and that’s a very, very long process to get through,” Klein said. “The city absolutely cares. This is one of the city’s historic buildings and we want to see it redeveloped as a building with a new use in it, and to protect it before then. It’s not for lack of desire or care.”