State gives Raleigh land to N.C. Museum of Art Foundation

Foundation to update site of former youth prison

rstradling@newsobserver.comDecember 11, 2012 

  • State to sell land near WakeMed Soccer Park On the day it approved the art museum gift, the Council of State also OK’d the sale of 95 acres in Cary near the WakeMed Soccer Park to homebuilder Lennar. The state auctioned off the property, with Lennar submitting a high bid of $15 million. The deal is contingent on the property being successfully rezoned. The money would go into the state’s general fund. Lennar’s current plans call for a community of 350 homes at the corner of Cary Towne Boulevard and Trinity Road. About 14 acres would be set aside for commercial development. The land is part of a 310-acre tract that the state acquired in 1937. Staff Writer David Bracken

— The state has agreed to give about 34 acres of prime real estate in West Raleigh to a private foundation that plans to develop much of the property to raise money for the N.C. Museum of Art.

The land, at the northeast corner of Wade Avenue and Blue Ridge Road, is the former site of the Polk Youth Center, a prison for young people that closed in 1997. Little of the prison remains, except for two warehouses and a tall, brick smokestack.

The land has been part of the museum’s art park, 164 acres of meadows and woods laced with trails and studded with sculptures and other outdoor art. But museum officials have always thought the land closest to Blue Ridge Road, including most of the museum’s newest parking lot, had development potential that could benefit the museum, said Dan Gottlieb, the museum’s director of planning and design.

The transfer of land follows the completion of a city plan that calls for redeveloping the Blue Ridge Road corridor, from Western Boulevard to Edwards Mill Road. The area includes the State Fairgrounds, the N.C. State veterinary school and Rex Hospital. The plan envisions a more urban street, with sidewalks and bike paths, lined with multi-story office, retail and residential buildings.

The city plan shows rough sketches of several new buildings on the foundation’s property, including a hotel.

The foundation doesn’t have specific plans for the land, said Mason Williams, a real estate broker and developer who heads the museum foundation. He said the foundation will spend the next 18 months or so looking at the options and developing a blueprint, before seeking private developers willing to lease and build.

The N.C. Museum of Art Foundation acts as the business arm of the state-run museum, generating income from donations, ticket sales, the gift shop and other enterprises. The foundation accounts for about 70 percent of the museum’s $21 million annual budget, with the rest coming from the state, said Caterri M. Woodrum, the museum’s chief financial officer.

The foundation would retain ownership of the Blue Ridge Road property, generating income by leasing the land to developers and owners of the buildings. The foundation won’t have to rent apartments or find office tenants, Williams said, and can hang on to the property as Blue Ridge Road becomes more desirable in coming years and its value grows.

“We’ve just got to understand how to properly develop a ground lease that captures the upside,” he said. “And all that will flow back directly to the museum.”

Overshadowed by Dix vote

The Council of State – the governor and 9 other executive branch officials elected to statewide office – approved the gift of land to the foundation last Tuesday, the same day that it agreed to lease the Dorothea Dix Hospital campus to the city of Raleigh for a park. The council did not take a separate vote on the art museum transaction, which was approved with several others. The separate Dix vote got all the media attention.

But the museum donation did not go unnoticed by the real estate community.

“It’s an incredible piece of land,” said Jim Anthony, CEO of Colliers International in Raleigh. “It has to be one of the best sites in the Triangle area for virtually any type of development you can imagine.”

Anthony said if the land had been put out to bid there would have been plenty of interest from developers. He said its accessible location, just off the Wade Avenue freeway, means it has the potential to be home to a smaller version of North Hills, with a mix of residential, retail, office and a hotel.

Anthony said he thinks both the Dix land deal and the donation of the Blue Ridge Road property deserved more scrutiny to make sure they were in the public’s best interest.

“Trying to sneak this by the public is another one that’s really got to be discussed,” he said. “If it’s legal, it shouldn’t be.”

‘Another piece’

But foundation officials note that the land is essentially moving from the museum to the museum’s foundation, which is in a better position to oversee its development. The land was under the control of the N.C. Department of Cultural Resources, which includes the art museum.

“We look at it as another piece of the endowment of the museum,” Williams said.

The pace of development on the foundation’s land would be dictated by the market, said Williams, but he hopes to have “significant work” completed within five years.

“To be 100 percent done, it might be 10 years,” he said. “We would hope it would be less.”

Keeping the property allows the foundation to insist on development that complements the park and the museum and doesn’t overwhelm them.

The multi-story buildings would likely hug the street, with a transition back to the park, said Gottlieb.

As for the prison’s smokestack, the lone brick cylinder set back from Blue Ridge Road, Gottlieb said he hopes it will survive any redevelopment of the property.

“We don’t know what the final configuration will be,” Gottlieb said. “But we can dream that it will remain as a sort of beacon and a bit of social history for the site.”

Staff writer David Bracken contributed to this report.

Stradling: 919-829-4739

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