Healdsburg has a vision for its future -#8212; specifically for the southern gateway to the downtown and train depot area -#8212; embodied in a newly-approved plan that spells out sweeping changes.

More than four years in the making, the Central Healdsburg Avenue Plan was unanimously approved last week by the City Council.

It provides a set of guiding principles and design frameworks for public infrastructure and private investment in the 80-acre area near the heart of the community.

Some of the changes are already in the works, such as design and engineering on a traffic roundabout that will replace the confusing five-way intersection where Healdsburg Avenue, Mill Street, Vine Street and the railroad tracks converge.

Other suggested improvements are further off, such as slimming down four-lane Healdsburg Avenue to "create a sense of arrival, calm traffic and create a comfortable walking environment."

But the plan also is intended to spur economic and residential development in the area, which is generally south of Mill Street between Highway 101 and the Russian River.

It's now dominated by industrial uses including a lumber mill, lead product manufacturer, automation company, three wineries and a multi-tenant industrial park.

"It's one of the rare staff reports I looked at and got all happy and giddy about," said City Councilwoman Susan Jones.

She said she was excited by the study because "it's taking a part of our town and really turning it into something we will all enjoy, both locals and guests."

The 151-page plan proposes land uses, building designs, new streets, trail and creek improvements and utility upgrades.

Mayor James Wood said the impetus for the Central Healdsburg Avenue Plan came from the Saggio Hills project at the north end of town. There was a lengthy and controversial series of hearings that resulted in the approval of the 130-room luxury hotel and 70 custom-built homes, which have yet to be built.

But Wood said Saggio Hills made it apparent the community wanted to have a say in large projects at the beginning of the process.

Among other things, the Central Healdsburg study provides an opportunity for affordable workforce housing, he said.

"We've heard loud and clear from the community the importance of housing," Wood said.

Currently, there are 14 residential units in the study area. That would increase to 317 dwellings under the build-out estimate.

Hotel, office, institutional uses would go from the existing 26,000 square feet to more than 390,000 square, about nine acres.

In anticipation of eventual passenger train service, the plan identifies ways to improve access to the depot for pedestrians, bicyclists, shuttles and other vehicles. It explores ways to highlight the train depot's history, potentially with a museum, a display of historic railroad cars and perhaps a model railroad exhibit.

The plan also identifies a new southbound freeway on-ramp at Westside Road and a northbound off-ramp at Mill Street, both of which were previously detailed in the city's general plan adopted five years ago.

There is also a three-way roundabout planned at the intersection of Healdsburg Avenue and the Central Healdsburg freeway off-ramp.

"It does set a clear and concise course," said Councilman Gary Plass, although he said "you're not going to see anything immediately" in the way of new development in the area.

As for paying for the improvements, the plan lists a number of sources: regional, state and federal transportation grants; fees paid by developers and special assessment districts in which property owners agree to tax themselves.

Another factor that could influence what gets built is whether Healdsburg voters decide in November to relax a growth management ordinance that restricts the number of new residences to an average of 30 homes annually, but exempts low-income housing.

Consultants noted that the ordinance deters larger multi-family housing projects that are very difficult to build in small increments.

City officials say developers have been watching the evolution of the Central Healdsburg Avenue Plan, but aren't lining up with proposed projects now that it's been finalized.

The plan, arrived at with extensive public input through a series of workshops and hearings, is intended for a "20-plus-year horizon."

"To what extent it's built out will be determined by what the public wants to see and what the private development community brings forward," said city Planning Director Barbara Nelson said.

(You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 521-5214 or clark.mason@pressdemocrat.com.)