Debra J. Saunders
Castro Valley, Calif., is the spot where the East Bay meets the 1950s. In the old parts of town, there's a white rock lawn on every block. First names are big -- as in Al's Food Market, Gigi's Florist and Pete's Hardware. Residents boast about the parks and go fishing at Lake Chabot. Castro Valley is famous for its diners. No dinner crowds -- they close in the afternoon. If you're looking for fast food, you can find it on Castro Valley Boulevard.

There are no high-end retail outlets or chichi restaurants. You don't see pairings of pedestrians enjoying a stroll down the boulevard. "It's not Walnut Creek," Smart N Cleaner owner Namjoo Kim observes.

Thanks to the redevelopment machine -- which Gov. Jerry Brown has tried to defund -- $9 million of Alameda County redevelopment money is being used to turn a small segment of Castro Valley Boulevard into "a beautiful and inviting pedestrian environment" to encourage "shopping, dining and entertainment" on widened sidewalks with benches, trees and gateway markers.

In the process, the Streetscape project is tearing up Castro Valley Boulevard and driving away customers from small businesses struggling to keep their doors open in this down economy. With the street in front of her business torn up, Kim says revenue is down 30 percent -- and "that 30 percent is to us our profit." She fears that longtime customers will find another dry cleaner and never return. And: "We cannot trust the government to work."

At El Burrito Loco, Jorge Poro says the drop-off in customers set him back two months on his rent. Yet from where he sits, the construction isn't a problem now. He has recovered. He feels "positive" about the project.

Redevelopment director Eileen Dalton is aware of the complaints and lost income. She understands that the project comes at a bad time for small businesses. "Even in good times," she says, small businesses find construction painful. "We're doing this project for their benefit. We don't want to have them hate it."

It is clear when you listen to Dalton that she wants to make downtown CV nice -- with "the things that people like about Pleasanton and Danville and Lafayette." A lot of residents hope she is right when she says that after all of this is over, "it'll be pretty." Right now, "pretty" is not the way people describe Castro Valley Boulevard.

I start with the view that big redevelopment projects are tax-funded schemes that allow one set of well-heeled bureaucrats to poach business from communities with fewer dollars to throw around. When they're successful, they lure car dealers and retailers to their fiefdoms. When they fail, they end up bankrolling the construction of empty buildings.

Debra J. Saunders

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