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 in downtown San Jose. 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.
The church’s exterior has been exposed for years to fierce winter storms and blazing summer sunshine, depending on the season. 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 Brand/Safway to undertake considerable work at the church.
Salata realizes the cost of some or much of this week’s work will come out of his pocket.
“I just decided to take the risk,” Salata said. “I couldn’t take it any longer, seeing that eyesore out there every day.”
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.
“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. “Now that we can see the building, let’s hope that we can save it.”
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.
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 did some shoring up work as well as improve drainage on the site.
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.
For now, however, the old church is no longer obscured by a steadily crumbling tarp.
“People can see how beautiful this building is,” Salata said.