Tapped out and boxed up

City councilman Kevin McCarty is pushing for new rules for bottled-water plants—like the one Nestlé Waters North America wants to open in south Sacramento.

The new plant was promoted by Mayor Kevin Johnson and the city’s Economic Development Department, but has provoked skepticism from the public and some members of the city council.

“Sure, I’ve heard it will create anywhere from 15 to 40 jobs. But at what cost?” McCarty said. “I’m not sure if this makes the most sense for our community in terms of the costs and benefits.”

McCarty is planning to introduce an “urgency ordinance” that would require water-bottling plants like Nestlé’s to have special permits before they begin operation.

“We require you to have a special permit to open a nightclub. We require you to have special permit to put a new roof on your house. I think we should add this kind of use to the list,” he said. He’s also asked city staff to look at the practices of other cities, like Los Angeles, which charge higher water rates for bottled-water facilities and other high-volume users.

The move is welcome news to activists who oppose Nestlé’s plans to put the big suck on our water supply.

“The urgency ordinance is an important step towards more transparency and accountability,” said Evan Tucker, an activist with the local group Save Our Water. But with Nestlé planning to begin operation by the end of the year, Tucker is concerned that any council action may come too late. “Nestlé is the reason this issue has come up. Any legislation that lets Nestlé off the hook is unacceptable.”

For the past two weeks, Mayor Kevin Johnson has heldUnlocking the Grid” meetings with downtown merchants, property owners and the public to brainstorm on the J, K and L streets corridor. There were some of the usual annoyances—too many repetitions of the phrase “think outside the box,” too many references to San Diego’s Gaslamp district. At least the mayor didn’t suggest we pattern K Street after Disney’s Main Street, U.S.A.

So let’s give Johnson the benefit of the doubt. Several representatives from Westfield Corporation—the company that owns the Downtown Plaza—were in the audience. And Johnson reiterated that they need to invest in their dead mall or move along. “By November or so, we need to decide whether you are in or out.” Someone needed to say that to Westfield a long time ago.

A couple of years back, SN&R tried to get folks to talk about how they would reimagine Downtown Plaza—up to and including completely disassembling the big ugly box with dynamite (see “Blow up the mall”; SN&R Feature; September 20, 2007). There’s no shortage of ideas. How about building high-rise housing on the west end of the plaza? Or turning the whole thing inside out so it’s part of the grid again?

At the time, Westfield was considering a pretty minor face-lift of the plaza, but even that failed to materialize. Bites worries that Westfield and K.J. will come forward with a warmed-over version of that 2007 plan. For a few million dollars in city subsidies, Westfield may move the movie theaters to the Seventh Street end of the mall, put in some extra windows, open Fourth Street to cars and maybe revive plans for a Target or other big-box store.

But all of these would be minor tweaks, hardly the kind of fundamental change that needs to happen to the old suburban-style mall that dominates our downtown. We’ll see if the mayor has the juice or the imagination to really get Westfield thinking outside the box, or if he’ll just offer the mall owners city money to give the box a new paint job.