Exciting beginnings for the Dix Park

The view of downtown from the Dix Park land on July 14, 2014.
The view of downtown from the Dix Park land on July 14, 2014. sshaw@newsobserver.com

Dix Park. For a while, it was a dream, and then, thanks to volunteer enthusiasts led by Greg Poole Jr., it edged toward reality, and then political disputes with Republicans on Jones Street seemed to threaten to return it to dreamland. Raleigh Mayor Nancy McFarlane, long a park advocate, worked hard to move that dream along, and now, with Raleigh having bought the park for $52 million from the state, the planning process for the park has begun.

These are heady times indeed for leaders of the Capital City and best of all, for residents. That’s the message in the big crowds seeking to know more about the transformation of the hospital grounds into a park who have attended the first meetings in the master planning process, held last week.

First, there was a lunchtime meeting at City Hall last Thursday, which was packed, and then another meeting on the campus of N.C. State. Also packed.

Message received: For all the political disputes surrounding Dix, with some GOP lawmakers saying it was worth more than the city paid and others looking at breaking up the 300-plus-acre site to consider development, the people care most about having a destination park for the ages, one unspoiled by commercial development that will serve as an escape, an oasis, overlooking downtown Raleigh from a spectacular high perch.

The mayor and park supporters on the City Council, along with a skilled group of city planners, have approached the project in the right way, with a master planning process scheduled over the next 20 months, a process that will include public meetings. And, a New York design firm headed by Michael Van Valkenburgh, experienced in such designs, is the right choice. Already, Van Valkenburgh has said an early goal of planning will be to figure out how to get people to the park. No small feat, though it can be done.

But Caroline Lindquist, a Raleigh city planner, put it well when she said the transportation issue is an issue because when Dix Hospital was there, with Central Prison nearby, the site was designed to keep people out. Now the task is of course to bring them in, by the hundreds of thousands.

It’s interesting that after all the discussions, it appears the mayor and Poole and others who tirelessly supported the park were right in their instincts, believing that the public would embrace the idea of a huge green space next to downtown Raleigh, which has been the scene of so much modern development. There is most definitely a stir in the Capital City about what could be done with that rare, and ever-diminishing, asset of open land awaiting possibilities.

There will be impatience, of course, with some residents hoping that Dix Park can be opened quickly, but careful planning is important if Raleigh is to create something for the present and future, something that will earn a place as one of the most important events in the first half of the city’s 21st century.