Home News San Jose political leaders launch push to tackle blighted buildings

San Jose political leaders launch push to tackle blighted buildings

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SAN JOSE — A San Jose councilmember has embarked on a quest to tackle what appears to be a worsening affliction of blight and decaying buildings in the Bay Area’s largest city.

The burned-out second floor of the Lawrence Hotel, a historic building at 79 East San Fernando Street in downtown San Jose, as seen in April 2024.(Jim Salata)
The burned-out second floor of the Lawrence Hotel, a historic building at 79 East San Fernando Street in downtown San Jose, as seen in April 2024. (Jim Salata)

 

The fire-gutted Lawrence Hotel site, a historic building at 79 East San Fernando Street in downtown San Jose, as seen in Dec. 2023.....(Jim Salata)
The fire-gutted Lawrence Hotel site, a historic building at 79 East San Fernando Street in downtown San Jose, as seen in Dec. 2023. (Jim Salata)

Councilmember Omar Torres has crafted a memo that, if approved by a key San Jose panel, would clear the way for a City Council study session to delve into how blight afflicts numerous properties around the city.

“The City Council will learn what happened over the last several years that led to historically abandoned and neglected buildings staying in their current state and what direction they received from various departments,” stated the memo.

First Church of Christ Scientist, a historic empty building at 43 East St. James Street in downtown San Jose, Feb. 29, 2024. (George Avalos/Bay Area News Group)
First Church of Christ Scientist, a historic empty building at 43 East St. James Street in downtown San Jose, February 2024. (George Avalos/Bay Area News Group)
A vacant retail strip center at 520-544 South Bascom Avenue in San Jose is located across the street from the shuttered Burbank Theater at 552 South Bascom Avenue, June 2024. (George Avalos/Bay Area News Group)
A vacant retail strip center at 520-544 South Bascom Avenue in San Jose is located across the street from the shuttered Burbank Theater at 552 South Bascom Avenue, June 2024. (George Avalos/Bay Area News Group)

An abandoned historic church and a fire-scorched old hotel in downtown San Jose are just a few of the problem spots, in the view of an array of political and business leaders in the city.

“When I came into office, I received numerous complaints from residents regarding historically neglected and blighted buildings,” Councilmember Torres said.

The complaints were widespread enough that they alarmed Torres, who began to seek ways to combat the blight maladies in San Jose.

Torres enlisted the support of Mayor Matt Mahan, and councilmembers Pam Foley and Sergio Jimenez to take the next step in efforts to tackle San Jose’s blight.

Sign for the historic former Burbank Theater at 552 South Bascom Avenue in San Jose, June 2024. (George Avalos/Bay Area News Group)
Sign for the historic former Burbank Theater at 552 South Bascom Avenue in San Jose, June 2024. (George Avalos/Bay Area News Group)

The next official step in the process is to gain the approval of a key San Jose city panel for a full-fledged information-gathering effort regarding the problems.

“I submitted a memorandum to the Rules Committee, along with Mayor Mahan, Councilmember Foley, and Councilmember Jimenez, asking for a study session to understand the process for getting these buildings into compliance and identify where the breakdowns occur,” Councilmember Torres said.

A shuttered retail strip center at 520-544 South Bascom Avenue in San Jose is empty and fenced off, June 2024. (George Avalos/Bay Area News Group)
A shuttered retail strip center at 520-544 South Bascom Avenue in San Jose is empty and fenced off, June 2024. (George Avalos/Bay Area News Group)

While numerous blighted buildings – and even large sections of blocks – can be found in multiple sections of San Jose, two of the most notorious examples of neglect haunt the city’s downtown, which is battling to rebound from the economic maladies arising from the coronavirus.

In January 2021, a fire scorched and gutted the old Lawrence Hotel at 71-81 East San Fernando Street in downtown San Jose.

Fire-torched second floor of the Lawrence Hotel, a historic building at 79 East San Fernando Street in downtown San Jose, as seen in April 2024.(Jim Salata)
Fire-torched second floor of the Lawrence Hotel, a historic building at 79 East San Fernando Street in downtown San Jose, as seen in April 2024. (Jim Salata)

More than three years after the disastrous fire, no work has occurred to repair the damage or preserve the remnants of the hotel, which was constructed well over a century ago in 1893.

The First Church of Christ Scientist building at 43 East St. James Street is seen by neighbors as an eyesore as it sits neglected in downtown San Jose next to a weed-choked field.

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)
Garden City Construction crews clean up plastic debris from a tattered tarp that had covered the First Church of Christ Scientist historic building at 43 East St. James Street in downtown San Jose, August 2023. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)

An affiliate of China-based Z&L Properties owns the site and has proposed a project to salvage and restore the historic church as part of a development of two housing towers next to the old church.

For years, the church was covered by an increasingly tattered giant tarp that the Z&L affiliate installed and neglected. Z&L has failed to renovate or restore the church and has yet to break ground on the housing towers.

San Jose Mayor Matt Mahan, who has joined forces with Councilmember Torres in the fight against blight, said that he referenced the blight problems in his budget message.

“I want to see us do a complete review and overhaul of the code enforcement process,” Mayor Mahan said in an interview on the day of the recent State of the City event at Happy Hollow Zoo. “The fact that we have over 4,000 code enforcement cases in the backlog is unacceptable.”

Jim Salata, a construction executive and San Jose commercial property owner, dismayed by the neglect of the church, teamed up with subcontractor BrandSafway to conduct several measures to remedy the problems looming over the historic building.

The Salata-led crew patched up the church’s rooftop dome, removed the tarp and cleaned up small bits of plastic that would have become a pollution threat during the rainy season. The work was conducted in August 2023.

Since then, the city has yet to take any major steps to assure the protection and renovation of the old church, or to force the Z&L Properties affiliate to undertake the work and keep the site up to code.

“The city is not doing its job,” Salata said. “Why doesn’t the city levy fines? They say there’s not enough staff. But there are too many excuses about why they can’t do the job.”

Years after the fire at the Lawrence Hotel, the structure, which survived the monster earthquakes of 1906 and 1989 that the San Andreas Fault unleashed, the old building is fenced off, its second floor gutted and open to the sky.

“The Lawrence Hotel is a burned-out hulk for more than three years now,” Salata said.

San Mateo-based Eagle Hills Property I LLC, whose principal officer is Bay Area real estate executive Kevin Louie, owns the Lawrence Hotel site.

Salata’s big concern is that the problems extend well beyond downtown San Jose and these two buildings.

At 552 South Bascom Avenue near Interstate 280, the historic Burbank Cinema movie theater lingers in years-long disuse, with no final decision on its fate. The “C” in the Cinema on the sign hangs loose and swings in the wind. Below the sign, a camp bed and an office chair flank the shuttered entrance. Graffiti mars the walls of the well-known building.

Across the street, at 534 South Bascom, an entire strip mall has been emptied out, boarded up and fenced off. In 2014, a Mexican market and taqueria, toys and collectibles outlet, comic book store, dry cleaners, and a kids and baby store operated at the retail center. Parking was tough to find.

But by 2015, a chain link fence blocked access to the empty commercial complex, a review of Google Street View’s history shows. The succeeding street views show the center has been continuously empty for nine years.

“There are pockets of blight everywhere in San Jose,” Salata said. “Why is that allowed to happen?”

City leaders and municipal staffers must step up to make progress in the battle against blight, in the view of Councilmember Torres.

“I want to thank Jim Salata for taking the initiative to help First Church of Christ Scientist, formerly known as ‘the trash bag church’,” Torres said. “However, it should not fall to individuals to improve our city. Our city needs to be proactive and hold property owners responsible.”



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