Wake County

First big question for Dix Park: How will people get there?

Encircled by highways and major thoroughfares, the 308-acre Dix Park isn’t a place visitors can easily stumble upon.

The site off of Western Boulevard near N.C. State University was home to the Dorothea Dix psychiatric hospital, which closed in 2012. A Catholic orphanage operated nearby for decades. Central Prison is across the street, and to the west is the Governor Morehead School for visually impaired students.

The grouping wasn’t an accident.

“That whole section of town was where the unwanted people of society were located,” said Caroline Lindquist, one of five city planners Raleigh has assigned to help turn the Dix campus into a signature urban park. “It was designed to keep people out. The way they built the roads around it was to discourage people from walking into it.

“So the challenge is, how do we flip that notion and turn the area into a destination? How do we open it up to be a welcoming place?”

That challenge will be among the first of many discussed during the park’s 20-month master-planning process, which kicked off Thursday in front of enthusiastic crowds. Planners hosted a lunchtime gathering at City Hall on Thursday and another meeting on N.C. State’s campus that evening.

Both events were packed, a sign that many residents are eager to weigh in on the park’s future.

But first things first: The park’s transformation will likely begin with transportation and access. Planners say they must find new ways for pedestrians, cyclists, drivers and public transit users to get into the park and pass through it.

In some cases, that might mean revamping what planners called “pathologically uninviting” intersections, including the South Boylan Avenue entrance along Western Boulevard. In others, it might mean building new roads into the park.

“You have incredible problems with that connection right now, which is surprising, because Raleigh isn’t huge,” Michael Van Valkenburgh said Thursday. “But it’s really hard getting from downtown to the park.”

Raleigh hired his New York-based design firm, Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, to plan Dix Park.

The view of downtown Raleigh from Dix Park, seen Sunday, Nov. 19, 2017. Henry Gargan hgargan@newsobserver.com

Karen Rindge, executive director of smart growth advocacy group WakeUp Wake County, said she was looking forward to seeing how park-goers would benefit from the county’s new transit plan, which calls for Bus Rapid Transit that allows buses to travel in dedicated lanes. One likely BRT route passes two park entrances on Western Boulevard.

But the most concrete proposal unveiled Thursday was the use of a main loop mostly for pedestrians and cyclists. It would be accessible by spurs from N.C. State’s Centennial Campus, Lake Wheeler Road and maybe a land bridge across Western Boulevard connecting Dix and Pullen parks. Similar structures underpin many well-known parks of this scale, including Central Park in New York and Millennium Park in Chicago.

Starting with key transportation decisions will allow Raleigh to adjust the park and its programming over the decades while ensuring the structure remains sound, said Matthew Urbanski, principal architect for Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates.

The Dix property has two high points divided by a railroad track running through the valley between them. Urbanksi proposed elevating parts of the main loop on a trestle bridge that would keep the path at an elevation of approximately 340 feet.

The cost

Last week, park enthusiasts were invited to unleash their imaginations and share their visions for the park, without considering the cost.

For the moment, money appears to be no object.

“They’re not going to nickel and dime this,” Rindge said. “No one is even talking about what the cost might be, because they want to do it really well. I don’t disagree with that approach.”

Raleigh paid $52 million to buy the Dix site from the state of North Carolina in 2015.

The city has a $1.9 million contract with Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, which designed Brooklyn Bridge Park in New York. That fee will be paid entirely by private donors through the nonprofit Dorothea Dix Park Conservancy.

The final cost of Dix Park could vary substantially based on the results of the planning process. Kate Pearce, the senior city planner leading the effort, said it will likely be “somewhere in the hundreds of millions of dollars, but spread over a very long period of time.”

Van Valkenburgh said Raleigh should keep operational and maintenance costs in mind when deciding what it wants the park to look like.

“Landscape is a living thing, and all living things have to be maintained,” he said. “We’re really keen on making sure we make a park the city can take care of and that it knows what it’s getting into when we plan it.”

More chances to weigh in

The design firm will host more public meetings every few months through February 2019.

Once the planning wraps up, it will be several years before the broad strokes of the plan are realized.

But even then, a park this size is never really complete, said Gullivar Shepherd, a principal architect with Michael Van Valkenburgh and Associates.

“There’s always another cherry on top,” Shepherd said. “But in five to seven years, you’re going to have something that satisfies. That first piece just has to be really transformational.”

Gargan: 919-829-4807; @hgargan

Upcoming meetings

The 20-month master planning process for Dix Park will include four more public meetings, each focusing on a different set of concerns.

March 2018: Planners will lead discussions of the site’s history and uses, as well as how its topography and geography dictate the parameters of the design process.

June 2018: More than 80 buildings remain on the Dix property, and planners will seek input on how to incorporate some of them into the park’s design and programming. They will also discuss the stakeholders involved in the planning process and how the park might be funded and collaboratively run.

October 2018: This meeting will delve more into the specifics of how the park will be used and what programming the city and others will be able to host on the site.

February 2019: Planners will hold a wrap-up meeting as they prepare to make the finishing touches on the master plan.