RALEIGH — The vision for a major urban park on the edge of downtown achieved a long-sought breakthrough Tuesday when the state and city approved an agreement to preserve 300 acres at the Dorothea Dix Hospital campus.
The two sides must still negotiate the details of a long-term lease, but advocates and elected leaders hailed the pact as a historic step that clears the way for Raleigh to begin planning its own version of Central Park on the leafy, rolling grounds of the former psychiatric hospital.
The Council of State, led by Gov. Bev Perdue, approved the lease by a 6-2 vote with one abstention. The Raleigh City Council gave its endorsement by a 7-1 vote a few hours later. The state will retain ownership of the land; the city will pay $500,000 a year, plus 1.5 percent annual increases, in a deal worth $68 million over the 75-year life of the lease.
Perdue, a Democrat, made the park deal a priority in her final month. She hurried the lease agreement to a vote with little public vetting, angering Republicans who asked state leaders to reject the plan until the new GOP administration took control.
Perdue touted the conservation benefits and the potential economic development advantages of a major urban park about a mile from the Capitol. “I think this is a really important decision for the future of North Carolina,” Perdue said after the vote. “This is a really important legacy project in terms of the people of this state.”
After the City Council accepted the terms, Mayor Nancy McFarlane gave a succinct declaration: “Thank you all. We have a park.”
The announcement drew cheers from a small band of park supporters who had gathered to watch the proceedings. Afterward, supporters and council members headed to The Raleigh Times restaurant for a celebration hosted by Gregory Poole Jr., chairman of the Dix Visionaries, a group that has pledged $3 million for a park master plan.
Over the years, ideas for the property have included an outdoor amphitheater, a botanical garden, a water park and an extension of nearby Pullen Park, which draws crowds to its amusements. Park advocates hope to renovate some buildings for art galleries or other public uses. Planning is expected to unfold over several years.
McFarlane said the city next will perform an environmental assessment on the buildings and grounds. Raleigh officials will begin the work “as soon as we can,” she said.
The overwhelming votes at the state and city level belied concerns from Republicans and conservative groups.
Gov.-elect Pat McCrory and GOP legislative leaders asked the statewide elected leaders on the Council of State to reject the plan, or at least delay a vote until the new administration takes office next year. The conservative group Americans for Prosperity also rallied opposition to the project, questioning whether the state could get more money.
Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry and Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler, both Republicans, were the two dissenting votes.
“I’m concerned that we as a state need to be looking for revenue sources as much as we can,” Troxler said. “I’m a big proponent of open space, but I just did not think the deal was as good as it could be for the state.”
But Democrats on the Council of State rallied to the cause.
“I think it’s shortsighted to analyze this as a pure economic transaction for the state,” said Attorney General Roy Cooper, a Democrat.
Democratic State Auditor Beth Wood said the rushed nature of the deal and the potential for her office to become involved in the future led her to abstain from voting.
Moments after the vote, Senate leader Phil Berger, an Eden Republican, said he would look for legal options to terminate the lease.
“I am disappointed, but not surprised, that a majority of the Council of State caved into political pressure at the expense of good sense,” he said in a statement.
McCrory and House Speaker Thom Tillis, who also expressed earlier misgivings about the park plan, declined to join his call. Neither responded to requests for comment after the vote.
It’s not clear that the legislature can or would try to block the deal. Norma Houston, a lecturer at the UNC School of Government, said the legislature has broad powers, but “it has been loath to pass legislation to invalidate a legally valid contract.”
Perdue and other supporters asked the legislature to designate revenue from the lease toward mental health services. But advocates for the mentally ill expressed disappointment in the decision. Many hoped that a land sale would generate millions to bolster community-based care programs.
The $500,000 figure is too small to make a difference, advocates said Tuesday.
“I am extremely disappointed that there is no mention of people with mental illness in this lease agreement,” Deby Dihoff, executive director of NAMI-North Carolina, wrote in an email.
“Our state should be preserving a legacy that Dorothea Dix, a great leader and pioneer, established when the first state hospital was founded. This is a very sad day for those with mental illness.”
The City Council gave its approval following a 30-minute closed session to discuss the proposal.
“This is just as major an event as Raleigh becoming the capital city,” said Councilman Thomas Crowder. “This will change the complexion of the city for generations to come.”
John Odom, the council’s lone Republican, voted against the lease deal. He said the city was taking on too much risk with the old, asbestos-laden buildings and potential environmental hazards at the site.
Under the agreement, the state pays for operations and maintenance only during the period it remains on the property.
“The mayor said she’s going to do an assessment on the park (land),” Odom said. “You’re supposed to do that before you make a deal. That’s how little we know about this.”
The city will bring in consultants and hold public meetings to draw up a master plan for the grounds.