San Jose officials try to save neglected historic church while owner on house arrest

The city of San Jose is preparing to fine a developer a $1,000 a day for neglecting a historic downtown church. If the church is not sold to someone else soon, city officials said they may take ownership.

Under a tattered tarp, sits the once majestic, First Church of Christ Scientist.

Advocates say years of neglect and a wet winter have taken a toll on the property.

"It is horrible. It is as bad as it looks," said development consultant Bob Staedler of Silicon Valley Synergy.

The owner, Z and L Properties, had planned to develop the site back in 2014, but that never got off the ground. And now the company's chairman sits on house arrest in London, embroiled in a bribery scandal out of San Francisco.

"This is a Chinese company that came to the United States with promise of development and luxury. And has just left the city of San Jose holding the bag on one of the worst pieces of blight anybody can remember," said Staedler.

City officials are understandably frustrated. They've been pushing Z&L to sell the property. The company's other San Jose sites are already on the market.

Z&L Properties has not responded to KTVU's request for comment. 

"Up to this point there has been good faith efforts even though it's terribly slow. The pandemic definitely did get in the middle and the financing conditions didn't help," said Nanci Klein, San Jose's Director of Economic Development.

In a worst case scenario, San Jose officials have the means to take ownership of the property. .

For now, San Jose has begun the process of code enforcement. If Z&L Properties doesn't take action to clean up the property, fines start in mid-June.

"It's roughly a $1,000 a day in this instance," Klein said

The church, which sits on St. James Square, was built in 1904. It's been vacant for decades, something the Preservation Action Council wants desperately to change.

"We were founded primarily to save this building," said Ben Leech of the Preservation Action Council of San Jose.

They said it was once a movie theater, and could be again. But they say the church is worth preserving.

"We are really pushing the city to, in any way they can, facilitate its transfer to an owner who has a vision for the project and the resources," said Leech.

Officials say first things first, the old tarp needs to come down, and a new one needs to go up, so the building is protected from the elements and further damage. 

City officials are hopeful the owners will let the city come in to do that in the next few weeks.