Raleigh should press on the Dorothea Dix impasse

July 15, 2014 

Raleigh Mayor Nancy McFarlane admits to being frustrated by the state’s foot-dragging on converting the former Dorothea Dix psychiatric hospital property into a city park.

She is being too polite and too patient. Nearly a year and a half after the deal for the 325-acre property was undone, state officials have failed to come to a new agreement with the city. Indeed, the pending offer – $51.2 million for 244 acres – seems to be getting scant attention.

The City of Raleigh should make another offer for the entire property – a take it or leave it offer with a tight deadline. Forget the state’s waffling about whether it wants to retain a portion of the property that now houses offices of the Department of Health and Human Services.

A split use shrinks the park’s grand potential. For the state, leaving offices in place perpetuates the problem of DHHS offices being scattered too widely. DHHS should be consolidated elsewhere and all of the Dix property turned into a park that will be a vast, green oasis in a city increasingly pressed for space.

Political spite

Patience is a key to negotiating, but what’s going on now isn’t negotiating. It’s an act of political spite by legislative Republicans. They didn’t want Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue to be credited with the Dix deal after she and the Council of State agreed to the land transfer near the end of her term in 2012. Under that deal, the city would have paid $68 million to lease the land for 75 years.

Republicans claim they undid the deal to ensure that state taxpayers got a fair price. Meanwhile, as the state dawdles, its taxpayers are spending millions of dollars to maintain the Dix property.

The governor’s role in this mess is notable. The former mayor of Charlotte knows how rare it is for a growing city to obtain a large tract of open land close to its downtown, but he hasn’t made it a priority. A year ago, the legislature left it up to him to work out a deal with Raleigh by July 31. Now that deadline is near, and no agreement is in sight. The state is losing money, and Raleigh is being denied a park that would enhance the capital city and be a destination for visitors from North Carolina and beyond.

Commissioners back state

One particularly sour note in this standoff is that two members of the Wake County Board of Commissioners endorsed canning the Perdue deal and leaving Dix’s future to the mercies of the legislature and McCrory’s so-far-undetected powers of negotiation. In a joint letter to The News & Observer, Joe Bryan and Paul Coble – a former mayor of Raleigh – wrote that they had concerns about the deal and how it might shortchange state taxpayers and services for the mentally ill. They wrote:

“(W)e must applaud state lawmakers for questioning the recent deal between the State of North Carolina and the City of Raleigh on a long-term lease for the property at Dorothea Dix. It appears that the former governor made a hasty deal to hand over the Dix property to the city for a price that does not seem to be fair to North Carolina residents.”

A year later, the deal remains undone, and both Republican commissioners are up for re-election. That letter likely will not be in their campaign literature.

The Dix delay is hurting the residents of Raleigh and the state’s taxpayers. It’s time for the city to tell the state what it will pay for the entire property, take it or leave it.

In the end, Raleigh may lose and the Dix property may be covered by condos, commercial buildings and state offices. It would not be an impressive park, but it would be a fitting memorial to how political peevishness obstructed a great civic vision.

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