Everybody in Raleigh has ideas about what Dorothea Dix Park should become. Just ask Kate Pearce, who hears them all.
“One suggestion was actually for a ‘Gaelic football field,’ ” said Pearce, a city of Raleigh senior planner who is working on the project. “Or fields for Ultimate Frisbee, a Frisbee golf course, things like that. The role of music, culture, art and recreation are the fun things everyone wants to talk about now. But we’re thinking broader, more long term.”
So far, most of the transformation of the 306-acre park, just south of downtown, has been abstract and hypothetical.
But 2018 should see some major momentum as gatherings seek public input on everything from the natural water systems to possible cultural attractions. A vision for the park’s future is expected to be unveiled in fall 2018.
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“This is not a homework assignment where a few ideas come in, the planners go away and then come back two years later with a plan they lay on everybody,” said Sean Malone, president/CEO of the Dix Park Conservancy non-profit. “It’s a process about creating an organic, authentic place in the community.”
The development of Dix Park began in 2015, when the city of Raleigh agreed to pay the state $52 million for the land (funded by a property-tax increase). Most of what’s happening now involves process – some of it public, but also behind the scenes.
In February, the city hired landscape architects Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA) to oversee the design. The New York-based firm has earned accolades for its park design, including the Brooklyn Bridge Park waterfront.
In July, the master planning process began. Last month brought a public meeting about transportation issues.
“It’s been clear that MVVA did not have a park plan up its sleeve just waiting for a place to put it,” Malone said.
Part of the process includes deciding what to do with the 85 buildings at Dix, which total more than 1 million square feet. Some 2,000 employees work there at headquarters for the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, which has a lease that runs for another seven-and-a-half years.
“Some of the buildings at Dix will be renovated, and some will probably be torn down,” Pearce said. “There are some old structures people feel emotionally connected to, given Dix’s history as a hospital, and some of the older buildings have environmental issues. We’ll have to make some decisions.”
Whether a dedicated live-music venue is ultimately part of Dix Park might depend on what happens to those buildings.
The Y’all at Dix Park concert series debuted this summer with a spotlight on local acts. The shows took place on a temporary stage erected in a field near the east entrance from Lake Wheeler Road.
For now, the lack of concert infrastructure limits booking options. But the concert series, which was produced by Raleigh’s Deep South Entertainment this year, is expected to continue next summer (although it has not yet been confirmed).
Other activities, such a Movie by Moonlight film series, star gazing, yoga and guided strolls, have also been popular.
As for what Dix might ultimately look like, a number of similar “leftover spaces” have been turned into parks around the country. Pearce cites Governors Island in New York, which is a repurposed Coast Guard station, and a former rail yard that was transformed into Chicago’s Millennium Park, known for its public art and photo-worthy “Cloud Gate” sculpture.
Dix park planners also use the phrase “Raleigh’s Central Park” to describe the space’s potential. Central Park in New York City, which was created in 1857, remains the gold standard for urban gathering spots.
“Most parks this size were made in the 1850s, including Central Park,” said Pearce. “To have this opportunity today, in our lifetime, is very unique. Dix will be transformative for our community, and we’re building for 150 years. The most audacious thing (architect Frederick Law) Olmsted did with Central Park was to name it that because it was not central to the city at first. But the city grew to it and that’s what will happen with Dix Park, too.”