The Saugatuck River is where it all began when colonists first developed Westport, and it's to the river that contemporary developers should return to plan the town's downtown future, a landscape designer told the public and members of the Downtown 2020 Committee Wednesday night.

Jackson Wandres works with the Norwalk-based RBA Group, the second of three firms vying for the job of preparing a master plan to coordinate development of major capital projects downtown.

Peter J. Smith of Buffalo made a public presentation Monday, and Milone & MacBroom Inc. of Cheshire will present its proposal Wednesday night.

Wandres said during the Town Hall meeting that he envisions the river as a focal point of a nascent arts district on the east and west sides of the river, which flows to downtown on its way to Long Island Sound. Construction of a new Levitt Pavilion for the Performing Arts on the east bank of the Saugatuck River will begin soon, and there is a proposal to relocate the Westport Arts Center to Jesup Green.

Several new restaurants on both sides of the river -- including in the redeveloped National Hall property on Wilton Road -- will complement this arts district, Wandres said.

In addition to the Post Road bridge, he proposed a jitney ferry that could take people from the west side of the river to the area of the Levitt Pavilion, and a new pedestrian bridge that could link the area north of the Save the Children property on Wilton Road to the northern tip of the Parker-Harding Plaza parking lot on the east side.

"I see the river becoming a major focus of this," Wandres said.

Gerry Kagan, an architect, planner and member of the Downtown 2020 Committee, said the vision is enticing, but worried about its practical implementation.

"You presented a lot of pretty pictures, but you didn't say what the traffic impact of all those pretty pictures would be," Kagan said.

The Downtown 2020 Committee was appointed last year by First Selectman Gordon Joseloff, and the forums are the latest effort by the group to rally support for its goal of hiring a firm to prepare a master plan that would coordinate and consolidate downtown planning.

On Monday, representatives of Peter J. Smith & Co. of Buffalo in its presentation said Westport has one of the top shopping districts in the Northeast and the town simply needs a push in the right direction to coordinate planning and future development.

With high-end stores such as Tiffany and Co. already in place and the nearby Saugatuck River a somewhat unexplored resource, Westport has incredible untapped potential, said Bob Gomez of VN Engineers in North Haven, the traffic engineer for Smith's team.

"You've already got Tiffany's, you've already got this incredible waterfront, you've already got the history. You've already got a lot of things going in your direction," Gomez said. "I think all you need is a little push and you're there."

The three consultants were among seven design firms that responded to the committee's "request for proposals" to prepare a master plan. After the committee selects one of the consultants, its efforts to hire the firm then must be approved by a series of town boards and commissions.

The impetus behind the downtown master plan is the number of current and future capital projects all planned for the town center, including:

- Redevelopment of the Westport Weston Family Y's property as the multi-use complex known as Bedford Square.

- Construction of a senior residential complex at Baron's South.

- "Transformation" of the Westport Public Library's building.

- Construction of a movie theater adjacent to the Main Street restaurant Tavern on Main.

- Construction of a new Levitt Pavilion for the Performing Arts on the east bank of the Saugatuck River.

- Relocation of the Westport Arts Center to Jesup Green.

Kagan on Monday asked representatives of Peter J. Smith how they would plan to coordinate so many competing stakeholders.

Peter Smith, the company's namesake, said the company has worked in communities of various sizes, including Cleveland, Ohio; Glen Falls, N.Y., and Connecticut towns such as Stratford, Cromwell and Enfield. Smith said public input sessions help the firm to crystallize a town's needs and wants.

"We want to bring people to the table who have contradictory viewpoints," Smith said.

Downtown 2020 Committee Chairman Lou Gagliano has said the three design firms are all qualified to undertake the master plan, and the three submitted plans are fairly similar in cost -- $168,945 for Peter J. Smith, $178,500 for RBA and $185,000 for Milone & MacBroom.

Milone & MacBroom's presentation is scheduled for 7 p.m. Wednesday in the Town Hall auditorium.