Deal on Dix land nears decision

$3 million pledged for master plan

mgarfield@newsobserver.comDecember 3, 2012 

Dorothea Dix campus


— Skip Vedell stood on the edge of the big field atop Dix Hill Monday and lofted his remote-controlled airplane into the sky.

On the unseasonably warm afternoon, Vedell, 68, couldn’t resist visiting the rolling meadow to practice his favorite hobby. For Vedell, who has followed the many rounds of talks on the future of the Dix campus, there shouldn’t be any question over what happens to the land.

“It would be a shame to see it turn into a business complex or condos,” he said. “If they start to tear this place up, you’ll never get it back.”

That view is shared by advocates who believe they are on the cusp of a long-sought agreement to preserve the Dix property.

Members of the Council of State will vote Tuesday morning on whether to approve Gov. Bev Perdue’s plan to lease the 325-acre Dorothea Dix Hospital campus to the city for $68 million over 75 years – a move that would enable Raleigh to fulfill its vision for a major urban park just south of downtown.

“A lot of cities are having to buy their land and convert it to parks,” said Gregory Poole Jr., a Raleigh businessman and chairman of the Dix Visionaries. “We don’t have to convert it. It’s a park now. We just need to save it.”

On Monday, Poole and Dix Visionaries pledged $3 million to commission a master plan for the park, with the initial $1 million coming from Capital Broadcasting CEO Jim Goodmon and his wife, Barbara.

The pledge marked the latest phase of an effort that has unfolded for nearly a decade, in the form of yard signs, grassroots campaigns and meetings with leading citizens across the state.

City Council members also will discuss the proposal Tuesday in a closed session. A public vote would follow if the council chooses to take action, City Manager Russell Allen said.

The plan has been met with criticism by Republican leaders, who want the decision to be left to GOP Gov.-elect Pat McCrory, as well as other conservatives.

The park plan is being pushed by “a few select insiders” and should not move forward without more public input, said Joey Stansbury, a conservative activist who has spoken out against past city projects such as a new convention center and proposed public safety complex.

“Raleigh citizens need a true plan, its full costs and the opportunity to vote on yet another proposed costly downtown project,” Stansbury said. “There has been zero public transparency or oversight.”

Talks with NCSU

The governor’s office intensified negotiations on the Dix property in July. The original concept involved selling the property to the city outright, but the two sides couldn’t agree on the value of the property.

A state appraisal put the price tag at $58 million but the city wanted to buy at a much lower cost. It cited an appraisal that pegged the value closer to $35 million to $40 million.

Looking for another option, Perdue aides approached N.C. State University.

The sweeping plan involved the state giving the property to the university at no cost to establish a park, mental health think tank and an “innovation village” to promote entrepreneurship on the grounds.

The arrangement required the establishment of a separate corporate entity, spun off the NCSU endowment and an independent board of directors in conjunction with the city.

The deal got so close that Perdue aides set an announcement date for Oct. 25 and a Council of State vote for Nov. 1.

The university saw a stake in the plan, given the property’s proximity to its Centennial Campus. But as the plan neared its final negotiations, the university backed out.

“The university felt the benefits to N.C. State were not clear and the potential financial risks were too great,” spokesman Fred Hartman said in a statement. The university declined to discuss the deal in further detail.

Back to the city

Perdue aides kept the park concept alive by re-engaging the city in discussions about a lease deal. Raleigh leaders found the new terms more appealing because they didn’t need a huge chunk of money upfront.

The two sides negotiated the price tag until the night before Perdue’s office released details of the agreement, a sticking point being the annual cost increases for the lease.

The state agreed to a 1.5 percent increase – less than inflationary indexes and lower than some other deals – eventually agreeing that the goal was not to make money on the deal, but to establish a park.

Under the terms, the state remains the owner but the city would largely control the property for 75 to 99 years.

“Even though it’s a lease and even though it’s more money, it’s a proposal that makes sense for both the state and the city,” said former Mayor Charles Meeker.

Mayor Nancy McFarlane could not be reached for comment.

The agreement fits the needs of both parties, said Jim Goodmon, a member of Dix Visionaries.

“All along, I thought a lease was the best way to do this,” he said. “The state gets to keep the land. They’re still the landlord. They can be here 10 years.”

Republican leaders reacted coldly to the lease terms. Senate leader Phil Berger sent a letter to Council of State members Monday asking them to reject the deal citing a legislative analysis showing the state undervalued the property.

“I trust you will exercise your fiduciary responsibility to the people of North Carolina and reject this hastily arranged and ill-conceived plan,” the letter read.

Perdue spokesman Pearse Edwards countered in a statement that emphasized how the proposal brings in revenue. “The fact remains the lease will be executed at a good value to taxpayers, and lease payments to the state will increase over the life of the lease,” he said.

Americans for Prosperity, a conservative political group, is suggesting the state sell the land to a private developer.

Perdue aides considered the idea but put more emphasis on making the property a park, even if it’s not the highest value use. Private development of the property is tempered by the environmental cleanup necessary as well as the existing historic structures on the property.

Julian “Bubba” Rawl, a partner with Preston Development, a prominent land developer in the Triangle, said developer interest in Dix would likely depend on whether the state and the city can come to some agreement about how it would be developed.

He said the property is worth much less if a developer has no assurances of the type of zoning that would be placed on it, which would dictate what could be built on the land.

“Property’s got value once it’s entitled,” Rawl said. “If somebody buys it un-entitled and has to grind through that effort the state is gonna garner less money for it.”

Leave as open space

Hospital buildings, state offices and parking lots are already on about 75 acres of the campus. An old landfill is now topped by soccer fields, and the area along Rocky Branch Creek is in a flood plain, so neither could be developed.

Park advocates say development would compromise their vision of a grand urban park.

“We’ve fought so many battles about development,” said Jay Spain, a Boylan Heights resident and longtime park advocate. “If you do mixed-use here, you’ve got (people saying), ‘Turn down the concert, we’re trying to sleep.’ You’re always going to be bothering someone.”

Back at the big field, Vedell tinkered with his remote-controlled airplane. He recalled moving to Cary in the 1970s when it was a little town with a few thousand people and plenty of room to enjoy the outdoors.

The region’s growth has left fewer opportunities to escape.

“There’s not enough free access to public land for people to come and play soccer or just have fun playing with their kids,” Vedell said. “It would be nice to keep this an open area for everybody.”

Staff writer David Bracken contributed to this story.

Garfield: 919-836-4952

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