After more than a decade of searching and trying to find the ideal place for a Belltown Community Center, one is finally going up in the neighborhood at Fifth Avenue and Bell Street this May.

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Building a community center in Belltown seems, on the face of it, almost contrary to the neighborhood’s image.

Characterized by nightclubs, restaurants and a revolving door of residents, Belltown is a place where renters outnumber homeowners by more than three to one and the percentage of single people is double that of the city as a whole. Single-family homes anchored with dogs and yards and children are not to be found among the blocks of high-rises — which arguably adds to its appeal.

Yet the effort to create a central gathering space has persisted. And in spring, 12 years after voters agreed to spend $1.8 million for the project, a center will finally open at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Bell Street.

The journey has been so long, in part because of the difficulty in finding a site in the dense, urban neighborhood, said officials with Seattle Parks and Recreation, which is carrying out the project.

The department looked at about 30 locations. Then, as the housing boom took off during the early 2000s, “We just never had enough money to buy a site,” said spokeswoman Dewey Potter.

So the focus shifted to renting.

The vacant ZUM fitness building at 2235 Fifth Ave. emerged as a candidate about a year and a half ago, Potter said. It contains about 6,000 square feet, which the city will lease for the next seven years with an option to renew.

Feedback during public meetings showed priorities should be adult programs and classes, space for evening dances and events, free town-hall meetings, and yoga, Pilates and possible martial-arts classes. Unlike other community centers, it won’t have a gym.

There will be a 24-hour Seattle Police Department drop-in desk where officers can fill out paperwork instead of doing it from their cars, Potter said.

A soft opening is scheduled for May; June is the expected grand opening.

Voters originally approved $1.8 million for the Belltown center, as part of a larger citywide levy to renovate, expand and open new centers. With interest earnings, the amount now totals $2.02 million.

Renovations will cost $935,000. The rest of the money will cover rent at $10,260 per month for the next five years. During the last two years of the lease, the rent increases to $12,150 a month.

Carolyn Geise, who has worked in Belltown since 1993 and was once a member of the community center’s advisory team, said that even though the department wasn’t able to buy a place, officials “probably made the best decision they could in these tough economic times.”

She said the original plan was to own a center in the heart of Belltown — considered to be between First and Third avenues — as a place where “you’d walk by, stop in and spend some time. You wouldn’t just go to a 10 o’clock aerobics class and leave.”

Parks officials are quick to add that the Bell Street corridor, which has long been a haven of drug dealing and other criminal activity, will soon be the site of a “park boulevard” project later this year. And because of this, they say, the community-center location makes perfect sense.

The Bell Street Park project will convert four blocks of Bell Street from First to Fifth Avenue into one lane of traffic with fountains, lights, trees, play areas and wider sidewalks.

Some say a community center, coupled with the Bell Street project, makes for promising changes.

Theresa Berkeridge, 32, is a newcomer to Belltown. She moved to the neighborhood last July after more than a decade on Capitol Hill and likes the racial and socioeconomic diversity of the downtown neighborhood.

A yoga teacher, Berkeridge said she was interested in finding out more about how the community could serve her need for studio space.

Berkeridge lives in a co-op near Fifth and Bell, which, in many ways, provides a built-in community, she said. But the people she lives with often talk about getting to know their neighbors better, she said.

“It’s hard to find ways to do that,” she said, adding that a community center might just be the answer.

News researcher Gene Balk contributed to this report. Sonia Krishnan: 206-515-5546 or skrishnan@seattletimes.com