Barry Saunders

Saunders: So far, so good on Dorothea Dix park plan – now don’t screw it up

Views of buildings and the Dorthea Gardens neighborhood in downtown Raleigh from atop the Dorthea Dix complex last fall.
Views of buildings and the Dorthea Gardens neighborhood in downtown Raleigh from atop the Dorthea Dix complex last fall. clowenst@newsobserver.com

In the history of the Internet, has there ever been an online dating profile that didn’t include, among “likes,” taking long walks in the park?

Now, thanks to the deal between the city of Raleigh and the state to turn the current Dorothea Dix site into a destination park, all of you hand-holding park-walkers could have a place to create lasting memories and work your romance magic.

That’s true, of course, only if the General Assembly doesn’t work its magic first by creating a strip mall or another extraneous condominium complex.

If you’re anything like me, the deal negotiated by Mayor Nancy McFarlane and Gov. Pat McCrory this month was a pleasant but stunning surprise. Once the legislature blocked the original deal with the city two years ago, it wasn’t hard to imagine our micromanaging legislature – you know, the one that’s always saying government should stay out of people’s and municipalities’ business – inviting big-box store developers or condo builders to come on down and make an offer.

A nixed earlier deal

The original deal, signed by exiting Gov. Bev Perdue, apparently was too progressive for some of the neanderthals occupying positions of influence in state government.

After all, this is the same gang that shortsightedly, perhaps malevolently, voted not to accept federal money for Medicaid, denied extensions for the long-term unemployed and ended tax breaks for filmmakers – forcing many to pack up their grips, gears and jobs and spread their largesse in other states.

And now we’re supposed to believe they’re willing to let this sweet deal stand?

“You don’t really want to say that out loud, do you?” Raleigh Mayor McFarlane responded when I asked her if the legislature could undo what’s been done. “They undid the last one, but I think this time the legislature gave this to the governor and I to work out a deal. It took two years, but they did support the process.

“It’s not anything that needs to be approved by the legislature” – but hey, neither was it the first time, either, and they still stuck their destructive fingers into it – “but if there were a majority that felt it was not a fair deal, they could step back in,” she said.

N.C. Senate leader Phil Berger, since the deal was approved, has not ruled out that mortifying possibility. Berger’s cryptic comments were that the final price “seemed a little low” – uh-oh – and that he is “still looking at it.”

If this were a TV show, you’d cue the ominous music here and cut to a commercial break.

McFarlane admitted, when asked, that she had some anxious moments when she thought the gorgeous green site would become a retail ruin. “Oh yes,” she said. “It’s hard to look at a big chunk of land from some people’s perspective and not think, ‘We could cut it up and sell it and get more money for it.’ ”

‘Much more value’

That, she said, “would have been a very long process ... and they certainly would not have gotten a lump sum of $50 million for it. ... The end product is more than just ‘price per acre.’ When you think about what a beautiful destination park in the middle of your capital city does for economic development, and what it says about you as a city and state, that has much more value than any per acre price you could get in 20 years.”

Supporters of the park often invoke New York’s Central Park as the model for what our state’s park could become. I’ve been to Central Park and, while it’s a wonder of the modern world, parts of it are not anything you’d want to emulate here.

“We’re not New York,” McFarlane said, “and there are lessons to be learned from cities that have large parks. ... One thing I don’t want is it to be 106 acres that go dark at 6 o’clock and is a scary place. Part of what’s really exciting is the possibility of what it can be. We want it to be unlike any other place in the world.”

McFarlane said it could be a few years before hand-holding walkers are able to pitch woo in the park, although, she added, “people are walking over there all the time right now.”

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