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San Jose officials eye fine for firm that rid church of “trash bag” wrap

San Jose officials eye fine for firm that rid church of “trash bag” wrap

SAN JOSE — Officials may impose a fine on a construction executive whose crews removed an unsightly and crumbling tarp that had covered a historic downtown San Jose church.

Construction crews a few weeks ago removed a gigantic tarp — a wrap that had prompted some to call the downtown San Jose building the “trash-bag church” — that was hanging in tatters from the historic building.

Uncovered dome of First Church of Christ, Scientist at 43 East St. James Street in downtown San Jose, August 2023. This photo was taken before crews supervised by construction company executive Jim Salata patched the rooftop and removed a huge bag that had covered the old church. (Jim Salata)
Repaired and patched dome of First Church of Christ, Scientist at 43 East St. James Street in downtown San Jose. This photo was taken after crews supervised by construction company executive Jim Salata patched the rooftop. (Jim Salata)

But in the wake of the removal of the “trash bag” as a result of the initiative of James Salata, president of Garden City Construction, some San Jose officials are wondering whether Salata trespassed and might face a municipal fine.

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 Z&L Properties, combined with nebulous oversight by city staffers and code enforcement officers.

Debris and a cooking pan next to First Church of Christ, Scientist at 43 East St. James Street in downtown San Jose. (Jim Salata)
First Church of Christ, Scientist at 43 East St. James Street in downtown San Jose, showing open windows. Crews supervised by construction company executive Jim Salata boarded up the windows to protect the church from exposure to the elements. (Jim Salata)

But after Salata orchestrated the removal of the tarp, scaffolding, debris, plastic contamination, cooking equipment, and a generator, as well as clearing away fire hazards such as tinder-dry vegetation, along with repairs to the roof and boarding up of broken windows — some city officials raised the specter that Salata should be fined for the work he and his crews did in late August.

San Jose officials said they were told by Z&L representatives that Salata didn’t have prior permission to enter the site to retrieve their equipment — the scaffold. Workers with subcontractor BrandSafway removed the tarp so they could retrieve the scaffold, which BrandSafway owns.

Cooking pans and empty cans of food next to First Church of Christ, Scientist at 43 East St. James Street in downtown San Jose. (Jim Salata)

“I know Jim Salata means well, but a crime is a crime,” said San Jose City Councilmember Omar Torres, whose district covers most of downtown San Jose. “We were told by city staff that Salata trespassed. But I don’t want to get into a did he or didn’t he trespass.”

Salata had done prior work with Z&L to undertake some renovation inside the church. As a result, he knew the combination of a lock for a gate to provide access to the site.

Open window at First Church of Christ, Scientist at 43 East St. James Street in downtown San Jose. Crews led by construction executive Jim Salata boarded up this and other windows to protect the interior of the church from the elements. (Jim Salata)

“Somebody had to do something about this,” Salata said. “The city of San Jose has allowed Z&L to let this property become blighted for years. Nobody from the city has called. Nobody from code enforcement has called. Nobody from the city is asking for advice about the next steps.”

Salata said he used the combination so the crews could enter safely, and bring in their equipment, and remove the tarp, scaffolds and extensive debris. This news organization’s direct observation of the site while the work was underway in late August showed that the fence around the church was intact and that the gate was opened and undamaged.

“We never went inside the church when we removed the tarp and scaffold,” Salata said. “We boarded up the church, including the windows, before we even took down the tarps. Many windows were not secure.”

Ionic columns of First Church of Christ, Scientist at 43 East St. James Street in downtown San Jose. Also visible are windows that crews led by construction executive Jim Salata boarded up. (Jim Salata)

San Jose Mayor Matt Mahan and Councilmember Torres — just a few days before Salata took the initiative to have the tarp and scaffolds removed — held a news event near the old church to demand the tarp be taken away and the blight on the site remediated.

“Matt Mahan wanted to get rid of the tarp and we got it done,” Salata said.

City officials for a considerable time have stated the tarp needed to be removed.

Construction crews remove scaffolds next to a historic church building at 43 East St. James Street in downtown San Jose, August 2023. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)

“It’s unfortunate that Jim Salata trespassed,” Councilmember Torres said. “But the tarp is now gone. You can now see the potential for that property. We no longer have to call it the ‘trash bag’ church. Everyone is happy the tarp is gone.”

Torres believes Z&L has to step up to pay for a complete end to the blighted conditions on the site. Z&L representatives have told San Jose officials on multiple occasions that “no money” was available to remove the tarp and scaffold.

Zhang Li, principal executive and owner of real estate firms R&F Group and Z&L Properties, wielded an estimated net worth of $2 billion in 2016, according to Forbes.

Generator sitting in dry vegetation next to First Church of Christ, Scientist at 43 East St. James Street in downtown San Jose. (Jim Salata)

“We need to hold billionaire and millionaire real estate executives accountable for the blighted properties they own,” Councilmember Torres said. “We don’t want them to be able to wipe their hands clean and say they don’t have to clean up their blighted properties.”

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.

Nanci Klein, the city’s director of economic development and cultural affairs, said no decision has been made yet on the next steps for the old church.

“This is under discussion by city staff,” Klein said.

Ben Leech, executive director of the Preservation Action Council of San Jose, urged city officials to take swift steps to complete the rescue of the old church that Salata began.

“We continue to call on the city to repurchase the site and transfer ownership to somebody with a plan,” Leech said. “Jim Salata did this pro bono, and we thank him for that. But the city needs to proceed with a sense of urgency to complete the work.”

Salata maintains that it was well past time to remove the tarp and scaffolds.

“I didn’t lightly make the decision to go there and do the work,” Salata said. “If the city called me and asked me to do this, with a few guys, four days and a boom lift, we can get the building completely tightened up and protected.”