To the shock and disappointment of city officials, a seller has pulled out of a tentative deal with the city for the purchase of a former child care center on the Far East Side to be used for a new men’s emergency homeless shelter and related development.
The seller, Kara Havens-Prange, had deeded the property to a limited liability corporation earlier this month, and it informed the city through its attorney late Tuesday that it was pulling out of a purchase and sale agreement and instead is selling the vacant two-story, 22,584-square-foot day care center on a two-acre parcel at 4111 East Towne Blvd. to another unidentified party.
“Obviously, this is unexpected and disappointing news,” Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway said. “But it will not deter the city and the county from our serious intent to develop a new shelter facility.”
The news puts the city back to square one in its search for a new men’s shelter. Since late March, when COVID-19 struck, the city and partners have been temporarily sheltering homeless men at the Warner Park Community Recreation Center on the North Side. Before then, men were sheltered in three cramped church basements Downtown not suitable for that purpose during the pandemic.
The seller’s notice closely followed an announcement Tuesday by Rhodes-Conway and Dane County Executive Joe Parisi of the intent to buy the former Play Haven Child Care property and the possible purchase of an adjacent parcel with a smaller building on a half acre at 4101 East Towne Blvd., which could create a large single site where partners could develop a permanent, purpose-built shelter, a day resource center, pay-to-stay beds and/or low-cost housing.
Rhodes-Conway on Tuesday introduced to the City Council a resolution to increase the Community Development Division’s 2020 capital budget by $3 million in borrowing, with $1.3 million for the purchase of the child care property and the rest for architectural and engineering services and holding costs. The resolution was to be considered by the Finance Committee on Oct. 26 and the council on Nov. 17. It would have required a 15-vote supermajority of the 20-member council.
Parisi had already recommended the county contribute another $3 million for the initiative, with the funding awaiting County Board approval of the 2021 budget.
The child care center property, identified after a six-month search, was seen as attractive because it provided a building that could have been fairly quickly converted to use as an overnight shelter and a site large enough to accommodate a new development offering a broader array of services, Rhodes-Conway and Parisi said.
The timing of the council’s approval for funding, however, left a window for the property owner to entertain other offers.
“Together we have laid out a $6 million dollar commitment to this project, and we are focused on moving it forward as expeditiously as possible,” Rhodes-Conway said.
City staff met Wednesday morning to regroup and consider other options, said Jim O’Keefe, community development director. “There are other properties we will be looking at,” he said. “There’s a strong commitment on the part of policymakers to get this done. I’m pretty optimistic we’ll move on and find an alternative.”
Ald. Samba Baldeh, 17th District, who represents the site, said the city must address its homelessness challenge but that he had heard concerns from some opposed to the Far East Side location. “I have mixed feelings,” he said. “The reality is, this is a problem we have to solve.”
In late March, as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold, the city and nonprofit Porchlight Inc., which runs the men’s emergency shelter system, moved homeless men to the Warner Park site from the metal bunks they were using at Grace Episcopal Church and overflow spaces in the basements of St. John’s Lutheran and First United Methodist churches, where they slept side by side on mats on the floor.
The move was necessary because the church basements had limited space to practice social distancing or isolate those who may have been exposed to the virus. The system has also long posed other challenges to guests and staff.
The city, however, can’t use the Warner Park facility as a temporary shelter indefinitely. And even converting the former child care center to an interim homeless shelter would have taken 12 to 18 months, so the partners have been exploring short-term options for 2021.
At the press conference Tuesday, Rhodes-Conway said she hoped to announce a stopgap solution soon.
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The timing of the City Council’s approval for funding left a window for the property owner to entertain other offers.
The timing of the City Council's approval for funding left a window for the property owner to entertain other offers.