Arts & Culture

Dix Park landscape architect talks about possibilities

Here’s how absolutely dedicated Michael Van Valkenburgh and his team of landscape architects were in their dogged pursuit of the master plan for Dorothea Dix Park:

▪ During the firm’s three-month sprint to outpace three top-tier competitors, they made 10 trips from New York to Raleigh to explore the park.

▪ Of his firm’s five principals, four are committed to work on the master plan.

▪ Van Valkenburgh himself will step down from his teaching position at the Harvard Graduate School of Design while he works on Dix during the next two years.

These are powerful gestures from a firm whose work on the Brooklyn Bridge Park helped it win the 2016 Landscape Architecture Firm Award from the American Society of Landscape Architects.

The firm did its homework here – researching the Wake County Transit Plan, the South Saunders Gateway Study and the Raleigh Downtown Plan to learn how Dix Park fits into the larger community. “They aspired for Raleigh’s future,” says Kate Pearce, senior planner for the City of Raleigh. “They get that we’re a hybrid community that’s fast-growing, innovative and culturally diverse – they hit on all those topics.”

Strengths and weaknesses

The master plan will create a scaffolding from which the park will be built in coming decades. It will seek to establish connections to surrounding areas, especially across busy Western Boulevard. “You can go over or you can go under – over in a variety of ways, or under in a fewer number of ways,” he says. “Bridges and tunnels are ways to get to the park and not ruin the experience.”

Other areas on its edges include N. C. State’s Centennial Campus and the State Farmer’s Market – both of which will enjoy a mutually beneficial relationship with the park. There’s room for development too – like the tall buildings surrounding Manhattan’s Central Park – that could cover future maintenance costs.

Inside the park lie multiple opportunities. A stream runs along the Western Boulevard edge – taken underground at some point, it now may be a candidate for daylighting. “The creek used to meander into the site quite far and I’m wondering if it’s possible to exhume it and bring it back,” he says. “Water is one of those universal things – the way it plays to the light and the sound of it and the animal life that comes with it is rich.”

There are 85 buildings on site. Some are architecturally significant and others of little value. Ranging in age from the mid-19th to the mid-20th centuries, they’ll need to be assessed, categorized and slated for renovation, rehab or demolition.

Foremost among them is the 1856 hospital designed by Alexander Jackson Davis. It is, says Preservation North Carolina President Myrick Howard, the perfect candidate for a boutique hotel.

A hotel begs the question of transportation within the 308-acre site. Some park proponents favor travel by foot or bicycle only, while others advocate for automobiles too. “I’m hesitant to say no vehicular transportation,” Van Valkenburgh says. “You’ve got to have service vehicles moving around, and a hotel is not going to have no vehicular traffic. You want to be able to go in and use it as a pedestrian and never have conflict with vehicles, and you don’t want it to be unsafe for children and the rest of us.”

One downside inside the park lies in the railroad tracks that slice through it. “It’s hard to put a nice spin on that railroad cutting it in half, but it’s a nice challenge,” he says. “It’s a lot to learn, and that’s thinking to me – in an active tense. You start with germs of ideas and mature them in the process.”

Planning and fundraising

Over the next two years, everyone interested will be developing ideas in three phases. First comes discovery, the technical analysis of infrastructure, land, buildings and systems, and an initial assimilation of community feedback. Then comes concept development with ideas from community engagement and the landscape architecture firm. “That’s where the magic happens,” says Pearce.

Finally, there will be a vision for the future and how to accomplish it. “It will be a government/public/private funding and management plan, an implementation plan,” she says. “And maybe some projects too – some walking trails or art installations – things to do early to show what it can be in the future.

“We’re not going to be able to build everything at once, but over decades,” she adds. “Phase One might be 10 years, and Phase Two in 20 years.” And the vision will drive fundraising, rather than the other way around. “I don’t think money is a reason to dilute that vision; it may just take longer.”

The Dix Park Conservancy, headed by former Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation president and CEO Sean Malone, already has secured commitments for the $3 million master plan. Its next steps will be to work with the city, which cannot engage in raising money, and others to fund the park’s development. “There’s no question that non-profit philanthropy is going to be part of creating this park,” Malone says. “It’s going to be a customized program for this community and this park, and the only thing we know for sure is that it’s going to be robust.”

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

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