Debra J. Saunders

Castro Valley Streetscape, however, is in a completely different league. It's a small project. Lifetime resident and local businessman Ken Carbone explains that because Castro Valley is an unincorporated area, "redevelopment is the only resource" from which tax dollars from downtown businesses can be reinvested into the community.

Carbone is sick of watching Castro Valley not spruce itself up -- and besides, he adds, the street had to be torn up for sewer work.

The question is, Can redevelopment funds transform Castro Valley into a quaint venue for pedestrians, diners and shoppers?

Merchants note that Castro Valley consumers place high value on the convenience of being able to pull over in their car and make a quick purchase. Mark Witriol, a co-owner of Pet Food Express, tells me he was "amazed" that the county thinks it can turn Castro Valley, at its density, into a walking town. Lucca's Italian Delicatessen owner Syavash Alaee agrees. "Nobody walks here," he says. His business is down 10 to 20 percent. When Streetscape is done, he expects the street to look better, but not his bottom line.

Some fear that the project will succeed too well. Then what happens to their rent and those enterprises that aren't stylish and upscale?

Others are skeptical of the promise of trendy eateries and tony shops.

Phil Fleig of Sal's Foreign Car expresses the ambivalence other merchants say they feel. He's glad to see tax dollars at work in Castro Valley. When it's over, he says, "it's going to look better, look nice. But what about the old people who aren't going to make it? There are some businesses here that I've talked to that are struggling. So they go away. If they make it, great. If they don't, what about them?"

I wonder just how many upscale downtown destinations planners think they can replicate. There are more than 400 redevelopment agencies in California. Though some projects have cleaned up urban blight, others are -- as the governor argues -- just plain wasteful. Dollars that could have funded schools and cops instead pay to erect new half-empty buildings next to old half-empty buildings. Think downtown Hayward.

And that's the question for Castro Valley Boulevard: Will redevelopment deliver a downtown like Danville's -- or Hayward's?

Debra J. Saunders

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