Chimney Sweep

Historic San Jose church comes into view after eyesore tarp is eliminated

The historic First Church of Christ Scientist building at 43 East St. James Street in downtown San Jose, Aug. 29, 2023. Arturo Alvarez and Andres Ramirez of BrandSafway work on the building.

SAN JOSE — James Salata, head of Garden City Construction, decided that enough was enough when it came to an abandoned historic church in downtown San Jose covered with a tattered tarp.

“This is really gnawing at me,” Salata said Tuesday as he watched his construction crew finish up a wide-ranging job this week to transform the blighted church property into a little less of an eyesore in downtown San Jose.

The historic structure on Salata’s mind is the First Church of Christ, Scientist at 43 East St. James Street. A growing number of observers, activists and neighbors have begun to complain about the church’s disrepair under its years-long ownership by a China-based real estate firm and the nebulous oversight by city staffers and code enforcement officers.

BrandSafway workers operate next to the ionic columns of the First Church of Christ, Scientist, at 43 East St. James Street in downtown San Jose, Aug. 29, 2023. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)

The church’s exterior has been exposed for years to fierce winter storms and blazing summer sunshine. Winds have steadily shredded the makeshift tarp.

This week, alarmed by the looming prospect of the fall and winter months, Salata took matters into his own hands and dispatched construction workers from subcontractor BrandSafway to undertake considerable work at the church.

First Church of Christ, Scientist is on a site owned by Z&L Properties, a China-based real estate company whose principal executive is Zhang Li, a key figure in a bribery scandal involving a top former San Francisco official.

Salata was able to gain access to the site because he had prior permission from Z&L to undertake some work on the inside of the church. BrandSafway owned the scaffolds and was reclaiming its equipment because Z&L didn’t come through with payments for that work. In the process, the tarp was removed.

Salata realizes the cost of some or much of this week’s work will come out of his pocket.

  • The Ionic columns of the historic First Church of Christ, Scientist building in San Jose, Calif., are once again visible, Tuesday, August 29, 2023, as Arturo Alvarez and Andres Ramirez of BrandSafway Scaffolding remove the protective covering that has obscured the historic 1905-era building for nearly five years. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)

  • (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)

    The historic First Church of Christ Scientist building at 43 East St. James Street in downtown San Jose, Aug. 29, 2023. Arturo Alvarez and Andres Ramirez of BrandSafway work on the building.

  • The Ionic columns of the historic First Church of Christ, Scientist building in San Jose, Calif., are once again visible, Tuesday, August 29, 2023, as Arturo Alvarez and Andres Ramirez of BrandSafway Scaffolding remove the protective covering that has obscured the historic 1905-era building for nearly five years. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)

  • (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)

    BrandSafway workers operate next to the ionic columns of the First Church of Christ, Scientist, at 43 East St. James Street in downtown San Jose, Aug. 29, 2023.

  • Crews from Garden City Construction sweep up the plastic littering Saint James Street from the degraded protective covering at the historic First Church of Christ, Scientist building in San Jose, Calif., Tuesday, August 29, 2023. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)

  • Shredded plastic from the degraded covering protecting the historic First Church of Christ, Scientist building litters E. Saint James Street in San Jose, Calif., Tuesday, August 29, 2023. BrandSafway Scaffolding workers were removing the shredded wrap that has obscured the historic 1905-era building for nearly five years. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)

  • San Jose Mayor Matt Mahan, left, speaks, as Councilmember Omar Torre looks on, in front of the partially covered First Church of Christ, Scientist building during a press conference, where he announced plans to up the maximum amount of fines for negligent property owners, on Thursday, Aug. 24, 2023, in downtown San Jose, Calif. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group)

  • The partially covered First Church of Christ, Scientist building is seen before a press conference, where San Jose Mayor Matt Mahan announced plans to up the maximum amount of fines for negligent property owners, on Thursday, Aug. 24, 2023, in downtown San Jose, Calif. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group)

  • The partially covered First Church of Christ, Scientist building is seen during a press conference, where San Jose Mayor Matt Mahan announced plans to up the maximum amount of fines for negligent property owners, on Thursday, Aug. 24, 2023, in downtown San Jose, Calif. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group)

  • The partially covered First Church of Christ, Scientist building is seen during a press conference, where San Jose Mayor Matt Mahan announced plans to up the maximum amount of fines for negligent property owners, on Thursday, Aug. 24, 2023, in downtown San Jose, Calif. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group)

  • First Church of Christ Scientist at 43 East St. James Street in downtown San Jose, February 2023. (George Avalos/Bay Area News Group)

  • (George Avalos/Bay Area News Group)

    First Church of Christ Scientist, located at 43 East St. James Street in downtown San Jose.

    6-1-2023, San Jose CA

    (George Avalos/Bay Area News Group)

  • (George Avalos/Bay Area News Group)

    First Church of Christ Scientist, located at 43 East St. James Street in downtown San Jose.

    6-1-2023, San Jose CA

    (George Avalos/Bay Area News Group)

  • (George Avalos/Bay Area News Group)

    A roofline and the structure of First Church of Christ Scientist, located at 43 East St. James Street in downtown San Jose, are exposed to the elements, February 2023.

    2-27-23

    (George Avalos/Bay Area News Group)

  • (HMdb.org, Historical Marker Database, Syd Whittle)

    First Church of Christ Scientist, a historic building located at 43 East St. James Street in downtown San Jose, constructed in 1905. The building as it appeared in 2010.

    (HMdb.org, Historical Marker Database, Syd Whittle)

  • (George Avalos/Bay Area News Group)

    First Church of Christ Scientist, located at 43 East St. James Street in downtown San Jose, is partly covered by tarps, January 2023.

    (George Avalos/Bay Area News Group)

    01-24-2023

“I just decided to take the risk,” Salata said. “I couldn’t take it any longer, seeing that eyesore out there every day.”

San Jose Mayor Matt Mahan hopes the building can be saved.

“It’s great to see some progress just a week after we announced stricter accountability measures for blighted properties,” San Jose Mayor Matt Mahan said.

But Bob Staedler, principal executive with land-use consultancy Silicon Valley Synergy, and a long-time critic of the city staff’s inaction on the property, praised Salata’s efforts.

“Jim Salata is a true steward of San Jose,” Staedler said. “He really stepped up. All credit to him. The city of San Jose should have started this work years ago. Jim Salata is doing the city a favor.”

Z&L Properties had agreed to renovate and restore the church and make it a key component of a project of two housing towers next to St. James Park. Z&L never built the housing high-rises and did not renovate the church.

The church site is one of several failed or faltering projects that Z&L had proposed or launched in downtown San Jose.

Federal prosecutors reached a settlement in a criminal case against Zhang. The deal allowed Zhang to return home to China after paying a fine.

For months, city officials have pondered — but have yet to approve — a stopgap $200,000 plan to remove the tarp and protect the church from the elements. The city is paying for it out of its own coffers because it has yet to coax an agreement from Zhang to finance the work.

Salata said he also attempted to convince Z&L to pay him to do badly needed work on the property that would fully protect the church.

“I tried to negotiate with Z&L, but ‘we have no money’ was their answer,” Salata said. “I made them a sweetheart deal to get this fixed up. They said they had no money for the work.”

Now, the contractors have patched up the distinctive dome on the roof, removed the tarp, cleaned up small bits of plastic that could become a pollution risk during the rainy season, and done some shoring up work as well as improved the drainage on the site.

“Hallelujah! this is what we were hoping for,” said Ben Leech, executive director of the Preservation Action Council of San Jose. “The church is still standing and in remarkably good condition because it’s been left to rot for several years. Everyone can see this is an important piece of architecture we are trying to save.”

On Tuesday, several workers were busy removing scaffolds that had clung to the side of the church for years.

More work needs to be done, however, Salata warned.

“The handoff for this now goes to Z&L and the city staff,” Salata said.

Among the immediate tasks that are needed to fully protect the church: the completion of some weatherproofing on a long upright section that is closest to the intersection of East St. James Street and North Second Street, Salata said.

“Z&L needs to follow through on their responsibility for protecting this historical landmark in the heart of our city,” Mahan said.

While more work needs to be done, for now, the old church is no longer obscured by a steadily crumbling tarp.

“People can see how beautiful this building is,” Salata said.

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