Are restaurants, offices and a hotel good for Dix Park? Critics hail changes to plan

What will you be able to do at Dix Park in Raleigh?

The city unveiled what you might be able to do while visiting Dix Park near downtown Raleigh. A boutique hotel, food hall, brewery, large field, gardens, hiking trails were some of the things planned for Dorothea Dix Park.
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The city unveiled what you might be able to do while visiting Dix Park near downtown Raleigh. A boutique hotel, food hall, brewery, large field, gardens, hiking trails were some of the things planned for Dorothea Dix Park.

Are offices, restaurants, a brewery and hotel good ideas for Dix Park?

The question of how much development is too much development has hung over the park’s draft master plan since the 250-page document was released.

In just two weeks, people submitted over 700 comments, most focused on buildings, parking and private development on the 308-acre campus.

Now, the city is taking a second look, walking back some parts of the plan and clarifying others in light of the feedback. References to future buildings along Lake Wheeler Road — which planners said could be sold or leased to raise money for the park — will be removed for “future study.”

Dix306 and Friends of Dorothea Dix Park — two groups that lobbied for the park — rallied opponents of private development during a recent Raleigh City Council meeting.

In a joint statement Friday, they called the latest changes “a positive response to our concerns.”

“We will continue to oppose any effort to generate revenue for Dix Park by cannibalizing it with private-use leases of land or buildings,” it said.

‘A lot of heartburn’

The draft plan — based on more than 65,000 comments gathered during the past year — listed several possible options for the future of the park.

It included preserving 30 of roughly 80 buildings or structures on the site. Some suggestions for those that remain included a boutique hotel with a rooftop bar in the former mental health hospital and a brewery and food hall near a new amphitheater in the center of the park.

Those suggestions are included in the plan’s graphics and were discussed at length during community meetings. But a memo from Kate Pearce, the city’s planning supervisor, said those items will now be clarified.

“The master plan does not determine the exact plan for preserving, adapting and demolishing buildings on the site,” she said. “It provides criteria for decision-making, suggests a structure for building removals and presents a rationale for reinvesting in structures that support the life of the park. It explores several different opportunities or future use options but does not commit to what is most appropriate to the future of the park The plan will clarify that it doesn’t recommend specific uses for the buildings or even which buildings to keep.”

Current and future City Councils will decide which buildings will be demolished and how the park will be developed, a process that will likely take decades. Each phase of development will have a “robust and transparent community engagement process,” Pearce said.

The changes to the draft plan will help alleviate some some community members’ fears, said Mayor Nancy McFarlane.

“People got very caught up and worried in the language that was in the draft plan,” she said. “Because it said ‘brewery’ [in the plan] didn’t mean it was going to be a brewery. It meant that was going to be a possible use. So they [are changing] some of that language that gave people a lot of heartburn.”

All references to “revenue generation” will also be removed from the plan except for sections on how to fund the park, according to Pearce’s memo.

The ‘most contentious’ part

The draft plan will specifically remove references to using eight acres of land along Lake Wheeler Road for future buildings. Those buildings would likely have been sold or leased to raise money for the park.

“Through the public input process, staff has realized that this is the most contentious piece of the Master Plan for Dorothea Dix Park.,” Pearce said. “To address this, the plan has been revised to suggest that the eight acres in question along Lake Wheeler Road should be part of a ‘Future Study Area.’”

The master plan should drop this idea altogether, but withdrawing the recommendation is a “step forward,” said leaders of Dix306 and Friends of Dorothea Dix Park.

The last, large community meeting is 6 p.m. Feb. 6 at the Raleigh Convention Center, 500 S. Salisbury St. in Raleigh. The City Council is set to vote on the draft plan at Feb. 19.

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Anna Johnson covers Raleigh and Wake County for the News & Observer. She has previously covered city government, crime and business for newspapers across North Carolina and received many North Carolina Press Association awards, including first place for investigative reporting. She is a 2012 alumna of Elon University.
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