The hilly, half-wooded land south of downtown Raleigh has had a special pull on the city for more than a decade now.
A mural of the old hospital campus covers a wall of Mayor Nancy McFarlane’s home, with the mayor painted on a bench and gazing back toward the city’s skyscrapers. Some of the area’s wealthiest people – including Gregory Poole Jr., Jim Goodmon and Jim Goodnight – have raised millions in the name of a grand vision for this place.
These 300-odd acres have been the subject of study after study, plan after plan and battle after battle, always just out of Raleigh’s reach. But on Tuesday, the city finally seemed to have snared its prize.
With a unanimous vote by the Council of State, Raleigh and state government have inked a deal for the city to buy the Dorothea Dix campus. Boosters have long said such a sale could bring a “Central Park” for the entire state to Raleigh.
First, though, there are a few decisions to be made.
“This is the next chapter, and this is going to be just as much work – if not more – as it was getting to this point,” said McFarlane, who has shepherded the deal through its last convoluted turns.
“I’ve had the most amazing list of things come across my desk, everything from a race car track to casino, to Ultimate Frisbee, to all kinds of things,” she said. “It really is going to be a matter of what does everyone want to see, and the sky is the limit.”
But race cars and casinos, she said later, are a rather remote possibility.
Part of the land’s appeal is its rarity: Few cities have had the chance to build on such a large piece of property so close to their center.
Many large urban parks have taken somewhat unusual forms of late. In New York City, The High Line tops a converted elevated rail structure through Manhattan, while one Georgia city is building athletic fields on a water-storage facility, according to Bill Beckner, a research manager for the National Recreation and Park Association.
At the same time, the proximity of the Dix site to downtown could make for lucrative residential and commercial construction on the land. The state legislature has commissioned two studies of that option over the years, meeting local resistance each time.
City officials refuse to speculate on the park’s final form – but it’s very unlikely that any private development will be part of the conversation, according to Jay Spain, board chairman for Friends of Dorothea Dix Park.
“We could have made that deal a long time ago, saved ourselves a lot of work, if they wanted a 200-acre park and 100 acres of development,” he said.
For Bill Padgett of the advocacy group Dix306, it’s a matter of connecting the park to downtown’s businesses and apartment towers, and N.C. State University’s Centennial Campus, which borders the Dix land.
“I don’t think we need to re-create what’s already around us,” Padgett said. “We need to figure out how to augment that.”
To do that, planners will have to figure out how to get pedestrians and motorists from downtown, across busy Western Boulevard and over to the campus.
The city has long discussed another greenway connection from Dorothea Dix into downtown, Spain said. The planned extension of Pullen Road also could give easy access.
There’s also the question of what NCSU will do along its mile-long border with Dorothea Dix. The university already is considering development options, such as office or residential, for 10 acres near Centennial Parkway.
“We won’t have a road between us and whatever the city develops the (Dix) property into,” said Michael Harwood, associate vice chancellor for Centennial Campus development. “We’re excited about that proximity.”
The park’s construction also could reshape the largely single-family neighborhoods along its other flanks. A 2006 document by Friends of Dorothea Dix Park proposed a special financial incentive for development near the campus, though city officials haven’t recently discussed it in public.
The sale contract comes after more than a year of negotiations between Gov. Pat McCrory’s administration and Raleigh officials. It replaces a cheaper lease negotiated by formerGov. Bev Perdue that Republicans said was a bad deal for the state.
Two Council of State members who’d voted against the Perdue lease in 2012 – Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler and Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry – supported the new agreement Tuesday.
“Even when we hit certain dead-end spots, we agreed that we needed to keep this going,” McCrory said of the talks, which included disagreements over the price and who should clean up environmental contamination at Dix.
Next, the Raleigh City Council must decide how it will come up with $52 million to complete the deal. The city likely can’t pay that sum out of reserves, and a debt package that large would have to go before voters. A bond referendum would have to be scheduled by the end of the year under the contract’s terms.
“We will start talking about financing options at our next meeting,” McFarlane said.
And construction of the park, of course, could cost tens of millions dollars more.
The city does have at least one source of money to start the process. The Dix Park Visionaries have raised about $3.5 million in recent years, which the group will make available to get the park project started.
Poole, the group’s leader, expects it could take 25 years before it’s all said and done. Like his fellow advocates and city officials, he suggested an open planning process that gives all a chance to speak.
“It’s a discussion: What is it that’s going to be best for the next 50 years, hundred years?” he said. “What is it that’s really going to make a difference in our society, in North Carolina. What is it this society wants to see happen to it?”
Terms of the sale
▪ The state will 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 will share in the cost of cleaning up contaminated soil on a former landfill, up to $1.2 million.
▪ If the city decided to sell or lease any part of the property, the state and city will share equally in the proceeds for no longer than 17 years.
▪ If the city decides to fund the purchase through a bond issue, voters must decide in a referendum by the end of this year.
▪ The city will get an easement for a walking and biking connection through the Governor Morehead School for the Blind campus to nearby Pullen Park.
State agency needs new home
The sale of the Dix property will mean that the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services will need to start looking for a new home.
Within 10 years, the state must vacate the 90-acre cluster of buildings surrounding the former hospital. That’s when Raleigh will assume control of dozens of buildings, many of them in poor condition and full of asbestos.
DHHS will keep about 26 acres on the west side of the property until 2040. That section includes the DHHS administration headquarters in the Adams Building.
The state initially sought to keep part of the Dix property permanently to house a consolidated DHHS. But Gov. Pat McCrory said Tuesday that the state is eager to unload the aging buildings and secure better office space for its employees.
“We’re spending $7 (million) to $8 million a year right now on maintenance of that facility, which is way too much,” McCrory said. “This agreement allows the state to address the long-term location of literally thousands of employees. Those conditions they’re in right now ... are not quality conditions.”
DHHS explored a new consolidated campus under Gov. Bev Perdue’s administration. Officials looked at sites from Morrisville to Garner, with the goal of finding about 1 million square feet of office space at a cost of up to $175 million.
“I think it’s highly desirable to get as much of the Health and Human Services leadership under one roof as the state possibly can,” said Sen. Louis Pate, a Mount Olive Republican who co-chairs the Senate Health Committee. “With the price of real estate around this area, it will be a heavy lift.”
Proceeds of the sale likely won’t help, as the money will go into a mental health trust fund. State Budget Director Lee Roberts said the fund could be used in startup costs for the new Broughton Hospital in Morganton.
Pate, who twice sought to scrap the land deal with Raleigh, doesn’t like that idea. “I’m not certain that that would be the best thing,” he said. “I would hope that there will be something that will be a long-lasting benefit to the mentally ill.”
Staff writer Colin Campbell