With old and abandoned buildings strewn across 308 acres of lush hills just south of downtown Raleigh, the Dorothea Dix campus beckons the imagination.
And the City of Raleigh, which last year purchased the land from the state government for $52 million, indeed hopes to transform it into an iconic destination park.
But designing such an amenity isn’t as easy as imagining one. City leaders can’t simply hold a meeting, put pencil to paper and start planning.
The city this year is in its “planning to plan,” stage, said Kate Pearce, one of the city’s main project planners. Staff will work with the City Council over the next few months to figure out how Raleigh will decide on the future of Dix Park over the next two years, adopting a master plan somewhere around the end of 2018.
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This year is about “getting our ducks in a row, doing our due diligence and trying to understand all of the complexities of this property,” Pearce said.
City leaders this year expect to hire a consultant and establish a structure that will provide for a thoughtful, transparent planning process. The consultant will likely lead the process under the governance of a master planning executive committee and master planning advisory committee – a structure city staff presented to the council March 15.
The City Council hasn’t decided who will occupy each committee or how many members each will have, said Stephen Bentley, superintendent of the parks, recreation and cultural resources department. City staff will work with council members on those details over the next few months.
Also unclear is how much money the city will spend on the planning process. Raleigh will likely have outside money with which to work.
The Dix Park Conservancy, a group of philanthropists chaired by Capitol Broadcasting Company CEO Jim Goodmon, has pledged $3.5 million.
While city leaders are more than open to outside help, the conservancy’s interest has drawn suspicion from a small group of residents who worry it will have unparalleled influence on the planning process.
“I have no qualms with Jim Goodmon, Greg Poole or others (with the conservancy) having a part in the process, but it needs to be balanced with voices of other residents,” said Joey Stansbury, a resident advocate for political conservatism.
The city will invite residents to be heavily involved with the process, Mayor Nancy McFarlane said. The city is already inviting public input on the Dix Park webpage, plans to take feedback during council and committee meetings and wants to hold special input events at the park.
The conservancy’s role remains uncertain until the City Council decides on a planning process, McFarlane said.
“If you look at any major destination park, it’s got conservancies and groups that help fund it,” she said.
McFarlane wants Dix to have a place for gatherings on a grand scale as well as more quiet, intimate spaces. Otherwise, city leaders haven’t offered many specifics.
I think we’ll be able to do something really unique and outstanding with it.
Raleigh Mayor Nancy McFarlane
“We’re very fortunate that the property we have lends itself to exactly that,” McFarlane said. “I think we’ll be able to do something really unique and outstanding with it.”
Even when the city is ready to start construction, crews may not be able to walk out and stick shovels just anywhere.
The Dix property is home to 27 buildings, including the former psychiatric hospital, and 22 of them are noted in the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s register. Furthermore, 178 of 308 acres – about 57 percent of the property – are currently under lease.
The state government has a 25-year lease on 20 acres of the property and a 10-year lease on 90 acres. More than 2,000 employees of the Department of Health and Human Services still work in buildings on the campus.
Healing Transitions, a drug rehabilitation center, has a 25-year lease on 10 acres on the southern portion of the campus. After 25 years, the center’s contract allows it to extend the lease another two decades.
N.C. State University has a 2-year lease on three acres to use one of the buildings for a daycare. And the Capital Area Soccer League (CASL) has a one-year lease on 60 acres it uses for youth matches.
The city will proceed with the master planning process regardless of the leases, according to staff. Some city leaders even see tenants such as Healing Transitions as appropriate fixtures at the park.
The site was home to the Dorothea Dix Hospital for the mentally ill for more than a century. The last patients left the hospital in 2012.
I think it pays homage to the whole concept of Dix, which is helping people in need.
Raleigh City Councilwoman Mary-Ann Baldwin
“I think it pays homage to the whole concept of Dix, which is helping people in need,” Councilwoman Mary-Ann Baldwin said. “I like the symbolism. It makes a statement about who we are.”
In the meantime, Raleigh plans to open up the remaining 130 unleased acres at Dix to more public use.
Complicating matters, though, is the fact that almost none of the Dix parking lots are designated as public – they’re mostly on leased land – and there are no available electric or water hookups should the city want to add buildings or restrooms.
So the city is working on parking deals with tenants and looking for ideas from other major U.S. parks like Prospect in Brooklyn, Hermann in Houston and Millennium in Chicago.
While those parks offer inspiration, Pearce said their histories and features don’t compare with what Raleigh just purchased.
“One of the main things that continues to come out is that there’s not an apple somewhere else for an apples-to-apples comparison,” she said of other city parks.