Raleigh’s Dorothea Dix Park hosted a grand public festival Saturday as its official coming-out party for residents, outdoor enthusiasts and curiosity seekers.
For most of the several thousand visitors who strolled the grounds while enjoying an ice cream cone or food truck fare, it was the first visit to the extensive property overlooking downtown Raleigh. City officials, who purchased the land for $52 million a year ago, are just beginning the process of developing plans for the property.
“It’s a lot bigger than I thought it would be,” noted Andrea Peros, a first-time visitor from Holly Springs, who came with her 2-year-old and a 6-month-old suspended in a sling.
The former psychiatric hospital property consists of a rolling greensward, centuries-old canopy trees and brick offices where some 2,000 state health department employees report to work. City officials regard it as a blank canvas to be filled in, rising to elevations renowned for their spectacular views of Raleigh’s skyline.
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City elders envision creating one of the nation’s premier urban parks, backed by the nonprofit Dorothea Dix Park Conservancy and its roster of wealthy donors. Dix has been open to the public, a secluded spot favored by cyclists, runners and ultimate Frisbee players, but largely unknown to the general public.
Organizers hoped to change that with guided tours and large events like the Destination Dix festival Saturday.
At 308 acres, the verdant expanse will be turned into one of the largest public parks in the United States, about a third the size of New York’s Central Park.
This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to offer something amazing for the city.
“This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to offer something amazing for the city,” said Kate Pearce, Raleigh’s senior planner and project manager for the park. “This is something that Raleigh or North Carolina has never seen before.”
Saturday’s festival was not unlike any other municipal holiday, with bandstands, bounce houses, a hot air balloon, a Ferris wheel and a beer garden. Families explored the vendor tents and misting pavilions, fanning themselves with free Destination Dix hand fans.
Pearce said an advisory committee, named last week, is expected to develop a master plan by 2017. After rounds of hearings, charrettes and reviews, the final plan would be completed in 2019. The design will include a budget, amenities, landscaping, pathways, security and a connector to the State Farmers Market nearby.
The park would likely honor its legacy as an 18th-century plantation, a psychiatric hospital from 1856 to 2012 and a patient burial ground.
“This property as a mental health hospital has been a healing place,” Pearce said. “It’s evolution as a park has a role in the therapy of the community.”
Residents were united on one theme: relief that this prime real estate escaped commercial developers and will remain largely undeveloped.
Another first-timer here, Matt Stull, an IT engineer from North Raleigh, came with his wife, Bridget, and their 2 1/2-year-old son.
“It’s just beautiful,” he said of the green vistas. “I understand that business is necessary, but every time there’s open parcels we don’t need to slap a bank on it or a mall on it.”
Shaun Dunning, a software engineer who lives downtown, has been here dozens of times to run, sled and cavort with his 2 1/2-year-old twins.
“It’s one of the last areas in Raleigh where there’s some woods,” Dunning said. “When I would run down here, I would see foxes and hawks.”