An international development company has purchased three vacant acres near Petaluma's planned downtown train station, sparking discussion of what kind of development is appropriate at such a significant location.

Pacifica Companies, based in San Diego, has ventures in India, Latin America and in 22 states. It purchased the three acres at 215 Weller St. in December after local owners lost the property in foreclosure.

Several years ago a project called Haystack Marketplace proposed 100 residential units and a European-style shopping plaza with 45,000 square feet of commercial space, including an open-air market. But the project stalled after initial talks with the city.

Pacifica closed the deal Dec. 3 for $900,000, according to county property records.

Pacifica spokesman Scott Russell said plans for the site are very preliminary, but probably will include residential housing — condominiums or multi-family units — on the upper floors and mixed-use retail on the ground floor.

The company is also discussing a partnership with Petaluma Ecumenical Properties for low-income, senior housing, said Russell, the company's director of acquisition and development.

"It's a very dynamic site," he said.

City planners are hopeful the company's concepts for the property can turn a bleak stretch of property into a bustling connector between the train station, the river and downtown's restaurants and shopping opportunities.

The property is nearly an entire city block, bounded by East Washington, East D, Copeland and Weller streets. It's adjacent to the SMART property that currently is being used for rail storage as the rail line construction begins in Santa Rosa.

A century ago, the property was a bustling rail yard for the Petaluma & Santa Rosa Railroad Company. Agricultural and other products were transferred between rail and river for transport.

It has been mostly vacant for decades.

Pacifica representatives talked with city planners this month about possibilities, governed by zoning blueprints for the city's central core and the station area.

"When it was on the market, we'd get calls from potential buyers, but it was always people with one product, like senior housing or a pharmacy," said senior planner Tiffany Robbe. "They just wanted to put their cookie cutter project in. This, I'm hoping, is a better fit. They can do something different."

Russell said Pacifica will actively seek community input and support.

Previous large-scale projects, including the nearby East Washington Place shopping center, have sparked vocal opposition and lawsuits over what is the most appropriate use, size and design.

"We don't want to do anything that people don't like, and ultimately we want to have a successful project," Russell said. "We're hopeful it's not very contentious. ... We are aware it's a key site for the community."

The planning guides call for a pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use project that connects the various transit options and creates avenues to access downtown or enjoy the river.

"It can't be a strip mall kind of thing, that's not permitted," Robbe said. "The retail spaces are going to be smaller. Nothing of anywhere near the size" of other recent projects like East Washington Place or Deer Creek Village.

Robbe said the company anticipates filing a formal application within a few months.

Parking could be a challenge.

Councilman Mike Healy suggested the project may need to be four or five stories. Or a parking garage may be needed in conjunction with other development involving the adjacent SMART station and Golden Eagle Shopping Center, he said.

Matt Maguire, a former council member who lives nearby and whose neighborhood group challenged the East Washington Place center's design, said he hopes Pacifica will follow the concepts set out by Haystack Marketplace developers Gina and Gerald Pittler.

"That's a choice spot in town for a really robust mix of uses," he said, suggesting an open pedestrian plaza surrounded by taller buildings. "That would be a very attractive feature to include.

"Depending on the quality of the project, it can really enhance downtown or harm what everyone has done to create a livable, walkable space," he said. "We'll see what they do."

Pacifica's website says the company has developed projects in the United States since 1978, including those in the hospitality sector, senior housing, multi-family housing, commercial development, land acquisition and residential development.

You can reach Staff Writer Lori A. Carter at 762-7297 or lori.carter@pressdemocrat.com.