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[whitespace] Castro Street
Photograph by George Sakkestad

Comin' Round the Mountain: Once just a peninsula pit stop, Castro Street has emerged over the past decade as a quaint dining spot some prefer to Palo Alto.

The New Mt. View

While Palo Alto rests on its tweedy laurels, its once-scraggly little sister has grown up into a hip, ethnically mixed and fun hangout

By Dara Colwell

AS HIGHWAY 101 cuts through the peninsula, past a sea of shopping malls, fast-food restaurants gathered in neon-lit clusters, and high-tech industrial parks, it's easy to bypass some of the South Bay's smaller communities which, characteristic of the region, dish up culture in surprising and delightful ways. Outside of tony Palo Alto, most visitors here fail to notice the area has a few underrated attractions up its sleeves. Downtown Mountain View, after a carefully engineered $60 million facelift, is one of those spots. And it's becoming a popular destination for people who aren't Stanford

scholars, Nobel Prize winners and cybertycoons. In other words, the rest of us--unless we bought into Palo Alto 20 years ago.

Once a dusty speck on the stagecoach line connecting San Jose to San Francisco, Mountain View has slowly, but surely, come of age, attracting some of Silicon Valley's better known enterprises.

For years, high-tech companies dutifully packed their employees off to lunch downtown, but the old Castro Street, all but abandoned in the '70s mall craze, begged to be renovated. After decades of foot-dragging, the city finally decided to walk the walk. Literally.

"We didn't want to create an automobile slum where you're marooned without a license," says Barney Burke, assistant economic development manager for the city of Mountain View. "We wanted an attractive alternative."

As he speaks, Burke points to an old blown-up photograph, roughly half the size of the wall, shot straight along Mountain View's main drag, Castro Street. The 1988 photo, proudly displayed inside City Hall's offices, shows a four-lane street flanked by vacant and neglected storefronts, some obscured by thick trees. Before the city's industrious revitalization effort, Castro resembled the kind of dingy suburban stretch commuters typically sail through in Los Angeles. But today, the same area, paved with wide, European-style sidewalks and peppered with sunny cafes, exudes an all-together different feel. It's something Burke, as a city planner, is quick to comment on. "This is the living room of the community," he enthuses. "The barometer of a successful downtown is that it's a place people want to be."

Mountain View's downtown district emerged after a gentle, pastoral evolution. In the mid-1800s, when the lowlands along Castro Street often flooded during heavy rains, telegraph lines connecting San Jose to San Francisco began dotting the landscape. The local Indians, seeing the series of wooden crosses, believed their white neighbors were an extremely religious crowd. The railroads soon followed and within decades, dozens of five- and ten-acre lots were planted with fruit trees bearing prunes, apricots, cherries and peaches. The orchards proved profitable, attracting Chinese workers who, sent in crews by their overlord Yueg Lung, worked the ranches. In the 1920s, El Camino and Castro, both rough dirt roads, were filled with dense trees planted row-upon-row. Only church steeples poked visibly through the canopy.

The orchards remained throughout the late 1950s, when the city began undergoing its postwar industrial boom. Coupled with the GI Bill, cheap financing for housing led to a rush in residential homes, built for the area's rising middle class. Housing grew from 1,026 homes in 1940 to 7,356 by the 1960s. But the fruit stands lining El Camino are what real estate agent John Kirby remembers best. Kirby, an approachable figure with thick fingers and a booming voice, first moved to Mountain View in 1964. Within minutes of arriving in his office on Castro Street, he offers me a farm-bred apricot to illustrate his impression. I bite into the orange flesh and its juices trail directly onto my shirt, leaving a stain. It's delicious. "Well, that's the risk of journalism!" he laughs. There are several apricots and figs on his desk, which friend and former mayor Bill Jellavich dropped off earlier--a find from a local grower.

DIVERSITY CAME to the farm town relatively recently. Until the mid-1950s, Castro Street was the only commercial area in Mountain View. As the city grew quickly over the next few decades, spurred by high-tech growth, business downtown nearly halted. Regional shopping malls, such as the San Antonio Center, drained retail business from the city's core. Older stores, like JC Penney's, Kirby's previous neighbor, began going out of business, and a variety of restaurants, mainly Chinese and Vietnamese, moved in because of the cheap rent. Andy's Chinese, Florentine and Plum Garden kept the downtown from folding completely, retaining a small but constant business flow. As they moved in, other ethnic restaurants followed: Tien Fu, Maharani, Kamei, Pho Hoa. Soon they began feeding employees from local high-tech incubators, such as Netscape, Veritas, Remedy and SGI (formerly Silicon Graphics, Inc.) Restaurants proved to be the key to anchor business to Castro Street.

Burke, who has lived in Mountain View 13 years, remembers when the downtown had more of the air of a pit stop than its current people-centered vibe. He relates the story of when the runner carrying the torch to the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics made his way down the peninsula, passing through Mountain View. "The runner just passed by the bank on the corner of El Camino and Castro," Burke says, almost ruefully, his blue eyes wide open. "That was it. It made us think that if we had a plaza or some kind of public space, the runner might have stayed a little longer."

Amusing anecdotes about the downtown are plentiful and those who have watched the community grow are eager to shoot the breeze. Take Peter Kolstad, the tall and avuncular general manager of Kapp's Pizza Bar and Grill. Kapp remembers dining with friends along Castro in 1990, when the town's revitalization project kicked in. Kolstad, despite being dressed somewhat formally in a barman's traditional black and white, has the air of someone with a ready joke at hand. "The entire street was a construction zone. It was torn up, filled with big trucks, and troughs lined both sides of the road," he says. "We came out of the restaurant, early evening, and saw a 300-pound woman fall into a trench. It was kind of dangerous!" Kolstad has always liked the downtown's energy but he says the change in the last 10 years has been dramatic. "Business is going crazy! Mountain View used to be just a Monday-to-Friday town."

Beginning in 1990, the city spent $60 million renovating the civic center and Castro Street and creating a new parking structure to keep the area relatively car-free. Once the city invested in the downtown, other developers soon followed suit. Individual investments, amounting to $125 million in retail, office and residential development further bolstered business in the area.

SINCE ITS BUILDING BOOM began, the downtown has become a great source of pride for the city, attracting a healthy and growing consumer market. One of the area's new business owners, Jim Dullaghan, who runs the top-notch Global Village Cafe, says Mountain View's stylish yet casual atmosphere drew him there. Dullaghan, who spent 15 years in the high-tech world lunching on Castro Street, says he feels the tables have turned for the district. "Palo Alto hasn't looked at us lately. A lot of their customers are over here now," he says. "We've got more diversity and a little more grit."

As Dullaghan points out--and as Castro Street continues to develop--comparisons to Palo Alto's University Avenue seem inevitable. Mountain View's glossy, handsome northern cousin has always been known for its elegant restaurants, chi-chi art galleries, boutiques and bookstores, all within a stone's throw of each other. And the presence of internationally renowned Stanford University has always lent energy to the city's downtown. "There's a highly synergistic atmosphere between Stanford and the business community," acknowledges Charlotte Cagan, president of Palo Alto's Chamber of Commerce. "It's a vital business center, as well as an extremely good place to live. That's an extremely good package right there."

Like Cagan, who says she doesn't like to make comparisons, Karen Cabello, executive director of Mountain View's Central Business Association, thinks Castro Street has its own unique character. "Why compare it to Palo Alto?" she asks almost disdainfully, as if someone knocked a chip off her shoulder. Cabello, who keeps me waiting a good ten minutes as she chats on the phone--that is, until I hand her my business card--seems an exception to the locals who ply me with goodies just for the chance to discuss their town. Cabello, no doubt feeling defensive now, says rather dully, "I think the downtown is coming into its own." Burke, too, is quick to dismiss the comparison. "We're Mountain View," he says throwing his hands in the air. Then he adds, with less conviction, "It's a mistake to measure ourselves by Palo Alto."

But according to Kolstad, who has served on several city committees, the well-intentioned city staff suffers from envy when it comes to the big P.A. "If they say there's no comparison--well, that's a line that's been regurgitated," he says, with refreshing honesty. "Palo Alto always seemed to be the design goal."

Kolstad's neighbor, Dan Ecklund, the pony-tailed owner of Red Rock Coffee Company, also seems to have a realistic take on the downtown. Ecklund has seen many businesses come and go over the last ten years and Red Rock originally housed the city's revitalization project offices back in 1990. "Palo Alto has a tight community," he says referring to Castro's former lack of vitality. "They're two great towns to be in--as realtors say, 'Location, location, location.' Mountain View is on its way."

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From the July 13-19, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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