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Bellini Italian Restaurant

It's a restaurant now, but Bellini Italian Restaurant at 401 East Washington Ave. is being eyed by city and county officials as a possible site for a homeless day center.

The city and Dane County are considering a historic former church that now houses an Italian restaurant three blocks from Capitol Square for a long-sought homeless day shelter, officials confirmed on Wednesday.

City and county officials have already done a “walk through” of the Bellini Italian Restaurant and the county is conducting a feasibility study, said Josh Wescott, chief of staff to County Executive Joe Parisi. “You need to make sure the space makes sense,” he said. “We don’t know yet.”

The Bellini site, which includes three neighboring houses, is listed for sale at $1.3 million. The county has budgeted $2.6 million for property acquisition, renovations and improvements for a day center. Wescott said it’s unclear what would happen with the three houses.

The Gargano family has owned and operated the elegant building with its steeple, soaring ceilings and original stained glass windows since 1999. A representative of the family could not be reached for comment Wednesday evening.

The county was prepared to move forward with a day shelter in a building now occupied by Hospitality House and owned by the homeless services organization Porchlight at 1490 Martin St. in the town of Madison. But the town and two nearby residents sued to block the move late last year. A judge decided the county had to obtain a conditional use permit from the town. The county is still considering the location and has since applied for one, Wescott said.

The town of Madison site is imperfect, many agree. Some homeless advocates have also said it is too far from Downtown.

The city has been helping the county to identify alternatives that would provide the needed 5,000 to 10,000 square feet of space and a central location, and the search led to the Bellini restaurant property. The restaurant building has roughly 6,300 square feet on multiple levels.

The Bellini and Hospitality House sites are the two under active consideration but “all options continue to be pursued,” Wescott said.

The city and county have been collaborating in the effort to find a site, and the city believes “a resource center is most effective in a central location,” city community development director Jim O’Keefe said, adding, “It can’t happen soon enough.”

The Bellini location is “much, much better” than the Hospitality House option and is far closer to homeless shelters and other amenities, said former Ald. Brenda Konkel, a leading advocate for the homeless. But she said it would be a challenge to get a day center fully operating there by the winter.

“Overall, it’s good,” Konkel said of the Bellini site option. “We’re moving forward. There’s money to do it.”

The day center is expected to offer counseling, job skills training, laundry, showers, rest rooms and storage, Wescott said.

The county, which has been struggling to find a site for a day shelter since a temporary facility closed in anticipation of redevelopment on the 700 block of East Washington Avenue in 2013, had been pursuing the property in the town.

Ald. Marsha Rummel, Sixth District, said she was just recently informed about the Bellini site and has not fully informed the neighborhood to gather sufficient feedback. But she said she favors a Downtown location because of its proximity to services and bus routes.

“I think it should be Downtown,” Rummel said. “I just want to make sure we have the right site that meets the needs of the homeless population. I’m really supportive of the efforts of the county to find something for this winter, even if it’s temporary.”

State Journal reporter Jeff Glaze contributed to this report.

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Dean Mosiman covers Madison city government for the Wisconsin State Journal.