Editorial

Dix park prospects

Finally, the outlines of a deal to bring a park to the Dix Hospital campus.

November 27, 2012 

A Christmas star glimmers these evenings atop the main building of Dorothea Dix Hospital, once a mainstay in North Carolina’s mental health care system. It’s as though the star, or whoever mounted it, doesn’t want to acknowledge the painful truth – that the hospital overlooking downtown Raleigh is far along toward abandonment as a refuge for troubled souls.

That decision can be second-guessed until the cows that used to roam Dix Hospital’s once-extensive fields come home. Instead of being cared for at Dix, patients needing to be on a ward now are sent to a new, smaller hospital in Butner.

The hope is that more mentally ill folks can be treated in community settings. But there is understandable concern that some of them will fall through the cracks, perhaps to wind up homeless or in jail.

Amid the problematic transition to another care model, a fierce debate involves suitable uses of the 300-plus acre property that has the hospital as its main feature. That debate now moves toward a climax as Democratic Gov. Beverly Perdue readies herself to leave office in a little more than a month.

Perdue has set in motion a plan to relocate Department of Health and Human Services employees housed on the Dix tract and elsewhere around the capital to a proposed new office campus.

Jewel at the center

That plan would set the stage for a dramatic conversion of the Dix land – a wonderful, rolling expanse with majestic trees and great views of the city skyline – into a park destined to become a recreational and cultural crown jewel for Raleigh and the region.

The governor is reportedly ready to ask the Council of State, made up of North Carolina’s independently elected statewide officials, to approve a long-term lease with the City of Raleigh, whose mayor, Nancy McFarlane, is an ardent park supporter.

After years of study and haggling over the Dix property’s possible sale – for a park, for development or some blend of the two – the lease concept has much to recommend it. The state would retain ownership of a revenue-generating asset, and the land would be kept available as a resource for the use and enjoyment of the general public.

Then there’s the potential that the Dorothea Dix legacy still could benefit the mentally ill, as their advocates persuasively argue that it should. That would be the case if at least some of the money flowing to the state from the lease were channeled toward mental health care.

No bulldozers

Momentous plans of this sort of course deserve to be carefully analyzed. But it’s not fair to suggest, as top Republicans in the General Assembly did yesterday, that Perdue is trying the equivalent of a Hail Mary pass in search of a lasting achievement.

Those Republicans have had two years in control of the legislature, giving them ample time to plot a future for the Dix property.

They could have decided to resurrect the hospital as an active treatment facility. They could have signed off on a redevelopment plan – although yielding to the revenue-driven temptation to let developers pack Dix Hill with condos, townhouses, offices or stores would have been, and still would be, folly of the first order.

GOP legislators maintain that key decisions about Dix should await incoming Republican Gov. Pat McCrory. But if Perdue and the Democratic-controlled Council of State approve a Dix lease, they will be completely within their rights to determine the fate of state property. A deal that brings the vision of a Dix park to life would be worth celebrating for generations to come.

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