While machinery is cranking and dirt flying at the site that once housed Kenilworth Junior High, where the Target-anchored East Washington Place shopping center is expected to open next summer, progress is slower for Petaluma's other big shopping center, Deer Creek Village, which still needs a final approval before it can break ground.

At the Target center site, a sign already announces future tenants: Target, TJ Maxx, Dick's Sporting Goods, Ulta Cosmetics and Sprouts grocery store. Ryan Nickelson, vice president of investments for the developer, Regency Centers, added that they have also signed the following stores: Sift Cupcake & Dessert Bar, Panera Bread, Chipotle, Five Guys Burger and Fries, Subway, and Sport Clips.

Groundbreaking on what will be Petaluma's largest shopping center took place in February, about eight years after the project was originally proposed. Still, a lot of work must be done before buildings start going up. Right now, the developer is making changes to Kenilworth Drive and installing underground utilities.

Wes Barry is the project manager for the site with Midstate Construction, the Petaluma company awarded the contract for much of the work. He said about 25 to 30 people are working on the site each day, and that when the buildings start to go up, probably in October, about 100 people per day will be working on the project.

The city expects to start issuing building permits for the various stores "any day now," said Geoff Bradley, planning director for Petaluma.

"It's progress, it's fun to see," said Onita Pellegrini, who as CEO of the Petaluma Chamber of Commerce has long advocated for the shopping center as a way to bring jobs and tax revenue to town.

East Washington Place will cover about 378,000 square feet at the intersection of East Washington Street and Highway 101.

Target is set to open in July 2013, with other stores following shortly behind, Nickelson said.

Across Highway 101, near Petaluma Valley Hospital, a sign announces that Friedman's Home Improvement will open in the summer of 2013.

That was the opening date developers of the Deer Creek Village shopping center predicted in April, when the City Council certified the second to last major approval for the project — the Environmental Impact Report.

At that point, the developer, Merlone Geier Partners, forecast that construction on the 346,000 square foot development would start this summer.

Now, if all goes well, construction will begin in early 2013, said Marko Mlikotin, spokesman for Merlone Geier.

The final approval — the project's design plan — has not yet come before the planning commission, and won't until mid August at the earliest, said city staff. For now, the 36.5-acre field on North McDowell Boulevard lies undisturbed.

Once the design plan is approved, the city will file a notice of approval within five days, Hines said. That will kick off a 30-day period where a person or group could file a legal challenge to the project.

A legal challenge has been an ongoing possibility, as residents and neighborhood groups worked with lawyers to submit comments finding fault with the Environmental Impact Report.

Currently, Hines said, city staff is working with Merlone Geier to finish the final design plans for the center. This includes the new Friedman's Home Improvement building, which will replace the originally-planned Lowes.

(Contact Jamie Hansen at jamie.hansen@arguscourier.com)

Sidebar: Freeway-facing signs

The Petaluma City Council considered on Monday another controversial, development-related issue — rewriting part of its sign code to allow freeway facing signs — but the issue died on a 3-3 vote.

Specifically, the council debated whether or not to change its sign ordinance to allow the Target center and other developers to put large signs on the backs of buildings facing the freeway to advertise their businesses, something that is currently not allowed.

The issue arose when the Target center developers requested being able to place signs on the backs of buildings in order to attract passers-by on the freeway. The city's sign ordinance, part of the larger implementing zoning ordinance, currently forbids such signs.

The Planning Commission considered the amendment first and unanimously recommended against the City Council amending the ordinance, with Curtis Johansen absent.

They argued that if changes did occur, they should be made as an overhaul of the implementing zoning ordinance, also expressing concern that the signs would be visually displeasing.

That vote included Gabe Kearney, the City Council liaison to the Planning Commission, who indicated again at the council meeting that he would rather revisit the entire sign code.

Mayor David Glass recused himself because he owns stock in Target, while council members Tiffany Renee and Teresa Barrett joined Kearney in voting against the changes. Council members Mike Healy, Mike Harris and Chris Albertson voted in favor of them.