Point of View

New life for the Dix buildings, too

January 11, 2013 

By J. Myrick Howard

It’s great news that Dix Hill has been transferred to the City of Raleigh. This remarkable historic place will now continue to be a tremendous asset for North Carolinians for another century. Bravo!

Now it’s time to dig in and consider how to make Dix Hill work as a park.

Many of the great parks from the 19th century were developed on vacant land, and buildings were then built around them. A century later, they are now treasured places largely because of the buildings and activities that frame them.

Dix Hill is not vacant land. Listed long ago as a National Register historic district, the property is reminiscent of a college campus. More than 50 buildings, many dating back more than a century, have been determined to be historic, with about as much square footage as the two tallest skyscrapers in downtown Raleigh combined.

Rather than looking at 19th century parks as models, planners for Dix Hill should study the new 21st century parks being created on the sites of former military bases and mental hospitals.

An excellent example is the Presidio in San Francisco, a former military base. Owned by the National Park Service, the Presidio’s existing buildings have been leased for private residential and commercial use. Those leases help pay for one of the most visited recreational parks in the United States. A useful guide to this 21st century park can be found at presidio.gov.

Based on this model, the historic buildings on Dix Hill offer a tremendous opportunity. They can provide revenue and activity for the park, as well as authenticity. It would be environmentally and culturally irresponsible – and fiscally foolish – to destroy them.

Instead of talking about 306 acres of parkland, we need to recognize that about one-quarter of the property is already developed, leaving about 225 acres of undeveloped landscape for recreational purposes. These two different land uses can be mutually beneficial.

For the historic buildings, we should identify private uses compatible with public recreational uses of the landscape and then find private users willing to renovate the buildings at their own expense under long-term leases. Lease terms would require renovation and maintenance under historic standards and strictly regulate the landscape. No new development, only the reuse of the existing historic fabric.

The main building at Dix was designed in the 1840s by the nation’s foremost architect, A.J. Davis, who worked with Dorothea Dix herself. This architectural gem is as large as any of the tallest skyscrapers in Raleigh, and for more than a century it remained Raleigh’s largest building.

This building and others on campus could be mixed-use, just like the revitalized American Tobacco complex and Golden Belt Mill in Durham. Those historic projects have attracted creative businesses, artists and residents to downtown Durham. Dix would do the same for Raleigh, while giving the park a strong historic identity. It will be walkable to downtown, the new railroad station and convention center.

The numerous historic homes on campus could once again be homes. Former dormitories could be adapted into private housing, both upscale and affordable. The chapel could again be a place for weddings, chamber music concerts and other special events. A boutique hotel would accommodate those who come to the destination park.

Residents living there would become the park’s most dedicated advocates. Their presence would make the park a safer place, 24/7.

If the city leased the existing buildings for only $1 a square foot a year (a low price, but easy math) with a requirement that they be renovated at private expense, the city would receive more than $1 million annually from the lease payments, more than covering the city’s rent for the entire property.

At least $250 million would then be privately invested in historic renovation, generating at least $2 million in annual property tax revenue. In the first decade alone, the city would receive $15 million to $20 million in net new revenue, and revenue would increase over time.

The historic buildings would pay for Dix Park, and the park would still have more land for recreational use than many of the parks being cited as models (such as Atlanta’s Piedmont Park).

Demolition is not the answer, costing nearly $5 million, filling our landfills with unnecessary waste, reducing the city’s tax base and destroying a unique historic place. And environmentally, the greenest building is the one that’s already here.

The historic buildings on Dix Hill aren’t in the way. They are the way to having a unique and successful 21st century destination park.

Myrick Howard is president of Preservation North Carolina and teaches at UNC-CH’s Department of City and Regional Planning.

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