As al fresco diners at Petaluma's Water Street Bistro enjoy a fresh-made meal, they gaze out toward the Petaluma River, the Balshaw Bridge and 100-year-old train tracks that eventually may carry a restored trolley.

"This is just blissful. It's bucolic," Samantha Alivos said as she relaxed in the sunshine.

Water Street, which as its namesake implies, parallels the river, curving behind businesses that front Petaluma Boulevard.

In 2003, the city completed a waterfront redevelopment project that revamped Water Street with benches, installed a cobblestone promenade at Western Avenue, removed a chunk of parking spaces behind the businesses and prohibited most through traffic.

The goal was to clean up a neglected alley, reduce cut-through traffic and turn the area into a public events setting. While the events aspect never blossomed, some residents have grown accustomed to the pedestrian-friendly area near the bistro.

Now the city is planning a "road diet" on Petaluma Boulevard and some merchants are pushing to have the parking behind their storefronts returned.

The redesign will reduce the number of lanes on the main street, but widen them and add a two-way turn lane in the middle. A few parking spaces will be lost downtown, but gained further south.

Others, including some merchants, would like to see the whole quarter-mile stretch of Water Street become a car-free zone.

City engineers and the bike-and-pedestrian committee are collecting public comment about reopening Water Street at Western Avenue to through traffic and restoring about eight parking spaces. The City Council will consider any changes, likely in September.

Stephanie Rastetter, owner and chef at Water Street Bistro for 13 years, said the city needs to concentrate on highlighting the riverfront as a community gathering spot instead of adding more parking.

"We're not using it for what it was intended. Eight slots isn't worth spending any money on. Eight slots isn't going to change anyone's life," she said. "Plus, there are two huge parking garages a couple blocks away."

But Jeff Mayne, president of the Petaluma Downtown Association of merchants, said parking remains the top concern.

"We are a shopping district," he said. "We are a center of commerce. If there are really people walking around and buying stuff, great, but we're not seeing it. People want their car to buy stuff and put it in their car."

He said the association embraces the idea of bicyclists, walkers and others sharing space.

"But that doesn't mean we have to exclude cars," he said.

The area is "idle and underutilized," he said. Merchants would like at least temporary parking restored.

Suzanne Biaggi, a landscape designer and sculptor who walks downtown from her nearby home, said Water Street used to be a "thoroughfare" that drivers would "zip through" to avoid the main boulevard.

She envisions a farmers market along the water or artisans selling their wares.

"It's a really special part of Petaluma, and it's a very small part of what could potentially be a really great space," she said.

"They need to make it a real destination. If it is opened up again, we lose that."

(Contact Staff Writer Lori A. Carter at 762-7297 or