When state officials announced in 2002 that Dorothea Dix Hospital would close, developers began dreaming of possibilities for the 308-acre campus just south of downtown.
One suggested a 10-story condominium building atop the hill, overlooking the skyline. Others envisioned high-end offices and homes. But a handful of neighbors wanted to keep bulldozers away from some of the biggest open spaces inside the Beltline.
“It functions as a park now, why can’t we make it a park?” Will Hooker, an N.C. State horticulture professor, recalls telling friends. “Several other people – better community organizers – took off and ran with it.”
Their 13-year quest to save the old psychiatric hospital property from private development is expected to end Tuesday morning. Gov. Pat McCrory will ask the Council of State to finalize a $52 million sale to the city of Raleigh, which hopes to create its own version of New York’s Central Park.
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Republican Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler, who voted against a cheaper lease to Raleigh in 2012, says he’ll vote yes. So will another Republican on the council, Lt. Gov. Dan Forest – “unless anything drastically changes,” his spokesman said Monday. Several Democrats on the council have also voiced support.
The vote will conclude years of political wrangling over the fate of Dix. Republican legislators said last week they’ll no longer seek to derail the deal and sell the property to the highest bidder.
Early backers of the park idea say they’re surprised the deal has taken so long. Former Mayor Charles Meeker threw his weight behind the plan in 2006, calling it “a bold vision for an exciting future.” But Meeker said he struggled to win support from Govs. Mike Easley and Bev Perdue before he left office in 2011.
“It just seemed like such a good idea,” Meeker said Monday. “I thought within a matter of months it would move forward.”
Here are some key dates as those months stretched to a decade:
Sept. 24, 2002: State officials announce they will build a new psychiatric hospital in Butner and close Dorothea Dix within six years. The decision would end more than 150 years of mental health care on the site and leave the land in limbo. Easley’s administration promises to “find the highest and best use of the property.”
Feb. 9, 2004: A study commission – made up of Meeker and five Wake County legislators – begins holding public hearings about various Dix development options. Then-Senate Majority Leader Tony Rand, a Democrat, says the site should be sold and “put on the tax rolls in some useful purpose.”
Oct. 27, 2006: Meeker calls for the city to create a nonprofit to buy the land for about $40 million through a combination of city funds and private contributions. That public-private approach was later scrapped. “The only entity with the resources to (buy the land) was the city,” Meeker said later.
June 14, 2007: Meeker issues a formal offer for Raleigh to buy Dix for $10.5 million. The move prompts laughter from Rep. Paul Stam, an Apex Republican, who calls it “an extremely lowball offer.” Stam says at the time that the pricetag “should probably be closer to $50 million.” He later supported the sale as negotiated by McCrory.
August 2012: The last patients move from Dix hospital to the new Central Regional Hospital in Butner. Meanwhile, the future of the Dix property remains uncertain. Perdue, a Democrat, backs the park idea, but the Republican-dominated legislature wants the final say.
Dec. 4, 2012: The Council of State votes 6-2 to approve a $500,000-a-year, 99-year lease negotiated by Perdue, who is about to leave office. Hooker, who has been pushing for a park for a decade, said later that Perdue shouldn’t have waited until her final month in office. “I was upset with Beverly Perdue for not making that deal earlier so it could have been finalized,” he said.
March 26, 2013: The N.C. Senate votes 29-21 along party lines to scrap the lease and restart negotiations over the property’s future. Republicans say the lease agreement doesn’t represent “fair market value” and shortchanges the state’s mental health needs.
July 22, 2013: Lawmakers agree to give McCrory and Raleigh officials a year to reach a new deal. The deadline is extended repeatedly as the two sides struggle to agree on how much the property is worth and who should pay for environmental cleanup on the site.
Jan. 12: McCrory and Raleigh Mayor Nancy McFarlane announce the terms of the current, $52 million deal, which McFarlane calls “a win-win for all of us.”
March 26: The same Senate Republicans who opposed the Perdue lease file a bill seeking to sell the land to the highest bidder. They argue the property should garner more than $52 million, and the state shouldn’t pay any clean-up costs.
April 24: The Raleigh City Council votes unanimously to approve the final contract for the $52 million purchase.
April 27: The three senators withdraw the bill, removing one of the final hurdles for the sale. “The deal’s been on the table 10 years,” Sen. Tommy Tucker says. “It’s time for it to move.”
Terms of the Dix sale
▪ The state would lease back from the city about 109 acres. The state Department of Health and Human Services would be able to maintain offices on the Dix campus for as long as 25 years, although the city would gain some of the acres after 10 years.
▪ The city and the state would share in the cost of cleaning up contaminated soil on part of the site, up to $1.2 million.
▪ If the city decided to sell or lease any part of the property, the state and city would share equally in the proceeds for no longer than 17 years.
▪ If the city decides to fund the purchase through a bond referendum, voters must decide on the issue by the end of this year.