Dane County’s proposal to locate a permanent homeless day center on the 1300 block of East Washington Avenue is raising hopes but also stirring concerns in the Tenney-Lapham neighborhood on Madison’s Near East Side.
County Executive Joe Parisi last week announced the county has accepted an offer to buy for $1.42 million the former Messner Inc. property at 1326 E. Washington Ave. The day center is expected to offer connections to mental health and substance abuse treatment, counseling, job skills training, meals, a kitchen, laundry, bathrooms and showers, access to haircuts, meeting rooms, storage and more.
The announcement, coming after years of searching for a site, encouraged homeless advocates and others, but the neighborhood is now raising concern about its proximity to an adjacent day care, residences, a bike path used by children, and Lapham Elementary School two blocks away.
“A lot of very legitimate concerns have been raised by people who live in the area,” said Ald. Ledell Zellers, 2nd District. “I need to know a lot more before I form any firm opinion on it. I think we need to talk more about exactly what the uses are and have these concerns addressed.”
The County Board must still approve the purchase, the city must consider a conditional use permit and $1 million-plus in renovations must be completed before the center can open in the fall of 2016. The county has budgeted $2.6 million for property acquisition, renovations and improvements for a day center.
To learn more, Zellers and county Sups. Heidi Wegleitner and John Hendrick have scheduled a neighborhood meeting at the site for 7 p.m. Oct. 7.
The neighborhood meeting will now precede any county committee or board action on the purchase and city consideration of the conditional use permit, which requires Plan Commission approval and gives the commission authority to establish conditions on management and layout with continuing jurisdiction over the project.
“It’s important to hear neighborhood concerns,” Hendrick said, noting that the county faced and addressed similar questions when it opened a temporary day center on the 700 block of East Washington Avenue that closed in 2013.
The county has been struggling to find a site for a day center since the temporary facility closed ahead of a major redevelopment. The county has been looking for a permanent site for about four years.
“It’s been too long,” Hendrick said. “It’s great that we’ve got a good option here.”
The 19,000-square-foot, two-story main building has an ideal size and central location for a homeless day center, Parisi said in announcing the purchase. It’s on a bus route and near the Yahara River Bike Path and Capital City Trail, just 2 miles from Capitol Square, and near services that include emergency and temporary shelter and free meals.
The idea is to connect people with resources and move them from homelessness or near homelessness to employment and permanent housing, Parisi said.
The center also would offer access to telephones, a computer lab, a mail/message center, day room, outdoor area, and areas for quiet rest.
“It doesn’t get much better,” said Susan Schmitz, president of Downtown Madison, Inc. “If this doesn’t work, I don’t know what they’re looking for.”
Former Ald. Brenda Konkel, an outspoken advocate for the homeless who used to represent the area, likes the site and its potential but wants a good process. “Make no mistake, I support the location as it is the best we have been able to find in four years,” she wrote on her blog. “But make no mistake, this can’t be rammed down the neighborhood’s throat either.”
David Staple, a board member at the Tenney Nursery and Parent Center, 1321 E. Mifflin St., said the child and day care needs to know more.
“We intend to be involved in discussions around this issue but haven’t formulated any official positions yet,” he said.
The potential of buying the Messner site emerged only in recent weeks and the announcement of an accepted offer came only last week, so the neighborhood hasn’t had time to fully digest what the potential impact might be, Zellers said.
“I’m disappointed with the process and the communication,” she said. “We need to slow down so the neighborhood has an opportunity to understand exactly what is being proposed.”