A plan two years in the making envisions the area surrounding Petaluma's rail depot as "a series of theatrical events" between downtown and the planned SMART commuter train station.

Unveiled recently before the city's Planning Commission, the draft report has been in the works since early 2011 and pulls together ideas and suggestions from a range of planning, transportation and economic experts, along with a committee of community members.

The plan is sweeping, forecasting tree-lined public spaces, a mix of uses and architectural styles and open walkways funneling transit riders to and from downtown, much of the activity oriented toward a sparkling blue Petaluma River.

Putting aside the fact that the river, a tidal slough, is most definitely not blue, the plan was met with enthusiasm from city planners, who for the most part welcomed it as a long-term planning model for responsible growth within the city's core.

The plan, as described by Dan Parolek, a principal with consultants Opticos Design of Berkeley, is meant to "engage the waterfront with a vibrant, urban new neighborhood and also visually connect back from the river to the station area very clearly and specifically."

An outdoor public amphitheater would be a focal point, facing the turning basin off Weller Street behind River Plaza, formerly Golden Eagle shopping center. It could be used for musical or theatrical performances.

Although he called the plan "beautiful," Planning Commissioner Ray Johnson said it may be overly ambitious.

"It's a pipe dream," he said. "What have we got that we can put our arms around? A lot of pretty pictures and a very blue river."

But other commissioners lauded the plan's foresight and imagination.

"This is a dream," agreed Commissioner Bill Wolpert. "But what is a dream? It's a vision. Without a vision, I think you get bad development, and there's plenty of examples of that. When we have someone who is interested in developing this valuable property in the center of our unique community, we can say, 'That's great. Here's our vision, here's what we're looking for.'"

Senior Planner Scott Duiven cautioned that the plan would be phased in over several years, economic conditions permitting. No developer is planning to jump in and create something like the Theatre District, which transformed Petaluma's downtown.

The plan initially aimed to evaluate the potential for transit-oriented development within a half-mile radius of Petaluma's two planned SMART rail station areas. But SMART has postponed the city's Corona Road stop, which is anticipated to pick up twice as many riders as the downtown station. SMART is projecting the train will be running by 2015 or 2016.

The downtown planning area includes the historic rail depot on Lakeville Street and is bounded by East Washington Street and East D Street.

Parolek said the theater would be nestled in a park-like setting, taking advantage of the sloping grade from Weller Street toward the river. A small, open canopy over the stage would increase the theater's visibility from the public plazas and overlooks along the turning basin.

"We're proposing multiple opportunities for the public spaces to work their way down and engage the waterfront, as well as (for) the buildings to orient themselves toward the waterfront and activate it as well," he said.

A tall clock tower would be another focus and would draw people to the train station, he said.

Some downtown property owners have expressed concerns about their businesses' compatibility with the new plan, which restricts building uses and architectural styles.

Satpal Singh operates a gas station-minimart on Petaluma Boulevard South. He worries that improvements he had planned for an aging car wash on his property might be prohibited with the new plan.

"This means that the approximately 8,000-plus local residents we currently serve would be forced to travel two to three miles further in order to purchase fuel for their vehicles," he said.

He wants to tear down the "unsightly car wash" and build a neighborhood market that would be convenient to walkers and bicyclists who live on the west side.

The City Council is expected to consider the plan in either April or May and could suggest changes.

To view the plan or for more information, visit http://cityofpetaluma.net/cmgr/sapg.html.