Arts & Culture

Mapping a future for Dix Park

Jennifer Hoverstad, a parks and recreation board member, makes a photograph with her daughter Elin of the Raleigh skyline during a weekly guided tour of Dix Park Wednesday, May 18, 2016. Six teams of landscape architects are vying for the chance to remake the Dorothea Dix grounds into a destination park.
Jennifer Hoverstad, a parks and recreation board member, makes a photograph with her daughter Elin of the Raleigh skyline during a weekly guided tour of Dix Park Wednesday, May 18, 2016. Six teams of landscape architects are vying for the chance to remake the Dorothea Dix grounds into a destination park.

The finalists read like a list of rockstars from a roster of pedigreed national landscape architecture firms:

▪ OLIN, designers of an exquisite setting for the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia.

▪ James Corner Field Operations, responsible for designing the High Line in New York – and stimulating a burst of development along that once-abandoned, elevated railroad spur.

▪ West 8 + Sasaki. West 8 is responsible for major parks including Madrid RIO and the Jubilee Gardens in London, while Sasaki created Chicago’s new Riverwalk, and is soon to transform Raleigh’s Moore Square into a light-filled, world-class gathering space.

▪ Michael Van Valkenburgh, whose Brooklyn Bridge Park turned a length of post-industrial waterfront into a bustling 85-acre civic landscape, all open to the Manhattan skyline.

▪ Civitas, authors of a master plan that connects all the dots on the 164-acre campus at the North Carolina Museum of Art, including sculpture park, galleries, architectural follies and running/biking paths.

▪ Nelson Byrd Woltz, the tiny Charlottesville, Va., firm that won a much-coveted, $18 billion competition for a six-acre landscape in New York’s Hudson Yards – the largest development in Manhattan since Rockefeller Center.

They were selected from 18 teams of landscape architects, engineers and preservationists – many of them partnering with area architects – all in hot and hopeful pursuit of one monumental opportunity: The $3 million master plan for Raleigh’s Dorothea Dix Park with its 308 acres of rolling hills, stunning views of the city skyline and huge inventory of historic buildings. Among the latter is a majestic, if badly altered centerpiece: an 1856 hospital designed by Alexander Jackson Davis, the Frank Gehry of his time and architect for the state Capitol.

Each team responded to a request for qualifications written and posted on the city’s website, by Kate Pearce, the newest senior planner in the city’s Parks, Recreation and Cultural Resources Department. Pearce holds a masters degree in city and regional planning from UNC Chapel Hill and an MBA in Economics from Millsaps College. Armed with a positive attitude, Pearce, 37, is more than suitably equipped for the complex set of challenges inherent in adopting and executing the park’s master plan. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime, dream job,” she says.

The issues to be resolved in the master plan are both broad-brush and detail-driven. There’s the identification of all the park’s constituencies and the articulation of their wants and needs. There are social concerns, ecological issues and development questions – income generation for future maintenance among them. But most of all, there’s transportation, inside the park and leading to it, not just from downtown but from other regional venues.

The process for selecting a team, too, is complex. An executive committee counts among its members Raleigh Mayor Nancy McFarlane, Mayor Pro-Tem Kay Crowder, N.C. State Chancellor Randy Woodson, Dix Park Conservancy Chair Jim Goodmon, conservancy members Orage Quarles (this newspaper’s former publisher) and Carlton Midyett, along with Diane Sauer, director of Raleigh’s Parks, Recreation and Cultural Resources Department, and Ken Bowers, Raleigh’s director of planning.

The finalists will be invited to meet with the executive committee, then dispatched to respond to a request for proposal for the master plan. The RFPs are due on Jan. 20 with interviews during the week of Feb. 13, followed by a final selection. The executive committee will make its recommendation to city council at its March 2017 meeting. Development of the actual plan could take up to two years.

The process was structured so the executive committee could familiarize itself with the designers, and vice versa. Qualifications on paper are one thing, but personal chemistry and a perceptive understanding of Dix Park’s challenges are something else altogether. “We have two objectives,” Pearce says. “One, to get to know the teams. We’ll be working together for a long time and we need to make sure they’re right for Raleigh. And, have they done their homework? Have they been on site? And are they sensitive to the park – what it was, what it is and what it will be?”

From the designers’ perspective, the city has a less-than-stellar history when it comes to the politics of design in the public realm. Two examples from the past decade illuminate this:

▪ The prospect of a 2006 public sculpture by internationally renowned artist Jaume Plensa, its $2.5 million price tag solicited from and pledged by Goodmon, was lost when city council reversed its position and eliminated the plaza on which it was to be placed, to preserve the view between the Progress Energy Center for the Performing Arts and the state Capitol.

▪ A competition-winning design for the 305,000-square-foot Lightner Building, commissioned by the city in 2007 and created by local architects Louis Cherry and Michael Stevenson, was abandoned in 2010.

If the city lost something in each of those situations, it gained something too, the mayor contends. “When something doesn’t work out, you learn lessons,” McFarlane says. “And all the lessons we learned from things that didn’t go the way we wanted, we incorporated into this process.”

One of the most important lessons for the council might be to commit itself firmly to the chosen team – and then get out of the way. In essence, its role here is to allow the winners to develop the master plan, and in the process become an advocate – not an adversary – for great design. Future execution of the plan also will require a strong reliance on leading landscape architects, rather than small-town politics.

To her credit, Pearce has been thoughtful and deliberate in designing the selection process and in making sure the language, translation and vision of the request for qualifications are shared and understood by all involved. She also promises transparency across the board. “If we make a misstep, we’re going to own it, revisit it and get it right,” she says. “There’s so much public excitement and enthusiasm, it’s hugely important that we do it well for the community.”

She and her team will be able to draw upon the collective experience of the 45 members of the Dix Master Plan Advisory Committee, as well the Dix Conservancy, a group tasked with raising the master plan’s $3 million price tag. They’ll also have access to city staff experienced in the areas of planning, development, transportation and historic preservation, among others.

The six teams now vying for the privilege of planning the future of Dix Park have proven themselves in spectacular ways to be the very best this nation has to offer. The winners not only will be tasked with designing a new environment for this city - they’ll be redefining Raleigh’s brand for generations to come. “We see it as an opportunity to create America’s next best park,” Pearce says. “It’s lofty – but the space deserves that.”

Sure, there will be politics involved in the process; it’s the public realm, after all. But the smart politicians will be the ones who step aside and let Pearce and the winning team do the job they’re hired to do. If city council wants great design, and a great city, less will surely be more.

J. Michael Welton writes about architecture, art and design for national and international publications, and edits a digital design magazine at He is the author of “Drawing from Practice: Architects and the Meaning of Freehand (Routledge: 2015). He can be reached at