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Dix is saved: Witnessing the birth of a great urban park



On our holiday gift lists, every North Carolinian should proudly include the present we're giving to the future, which is the chance to create a great urban park on Dix Hill in Raleigh.

Make your thank-you notes out to Jay Spain, Bill Padgett, Greg Poole Jr. and the members of the advocacy groups they lead, the Friends of Dorothea Dix Park, Dix306 and the Dix Visionaries, respectively.

When the Council of State voted Tuesday to lease the Dix tract to Raleigh, it capped a decade-long citizens' campaign to keep the land in public hands following the General Assembly's decision to close Dorothea Dix Hospital. Early on, it seemed the site would be sold to developers for condos and McMansions. Later, plans were hatched—including one by some city officials—to sell half and keep half, with the latter consisting primarily of visually appealing but not very usable slopes and streambeds.

Such plans were a "win-win" of the sort Raleigh so often swallowed in years past. By 2006 it looked like a compromised result was inevitable despite loud, if disorganized, public objections. But then the Friends went to work, Dix306 sprang up with its ubiquitous green-and-white yard signs, and the Visionaries—a group of Raleigh's political and business gentry willed into existence by Poole—joined the fight.

When Poole, whose family-owned equipment business is synonymous with land development across much of North Carolina, started to speak out in almost reverential tones about vision, stewardship and preserving all of Dix as a Central Park for Raleigh, the tide turned.

Spain, a filmmaker, and Padgett, a retired N.C. State technology chief, were long-established activists and neighborhood leaders. They almost looked amazed to have someone with Poole's clout on their side.

I know I was amazed. The way the three of them bonded and brought together allies from every strata of Raleigh, the word for me is thrilling. The prospect of the park is thrilling.

So now the work begins. Dix Park, or whatever its official name becomes, will be years in the making. Even after it opens, it will never be "finished."

What kind of park will it be? Use your imagination. The goal is a destination place with attractions for residents and visitors alike. Done well, it will stretch Raleigh's small downtown southward and connect it, via a trolley, to N.C. State's Centennial Campus, sparking economic development in every direction.

Every great city has a park like this one can be. Did the state let the land go too cheaply? North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper gave the appropriate response to that criticism. North Carolina is making an investment for future generations, Cooper said, joining with local government and private donors to grab hold of "an extraordinary opportunity" to add to Raleigh's quality of life and growth potential. Everyone in the state has a stake in Raleigh's success, he argued.

Thankfully, the lease is for all of the hoped-for 306 acres plus some out-parcels that bring the total acreage to 325. But while Dix Hospital is closed, more than 1,000 state Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) employees occupy some of its buildings, and they may be there awhile.

Gov. Bev Perdue, who leaves office in a month, closed the Dix deal over the objections of Republican legislators who control the General Assembly and whose votes—and appropriations—will be needed to move DHHS to other quarters. Expect the Republicans' hurt feelings to persist for two years, at least.

In the meantime, Raleigh Mayor Nancy McFarlane, who closed the deal from the city's side, can take charge of a park planning process that will require the most delicate of civic balancing acts—maximum public participation and strong leaders.

Poole's Visionaries have pledged $3 million for park planning, with the A.J. Fletcher Foundation—a family foundation headed by Capitol Broadcasting CEO Jim Goodmon and his wife, Barbara Goodmon—donating the first $1 million. The city has a parks process of its own, with staff and consultants answering to an advisory board, which in turn answers to the City Council.

Who'll be in charge, the Visionaries or the Council? The answer, of course, is both. The state, too, is a player, as the landowner—for the time being. At some point, as Jim Goodmon suggests, the city may want to float a bond issue and use it to share ownership with the state through a public authority like the one that operates the PNC Arena (formerly the RBC Center).

No naming rights, though—not for the park itself. This land, part of a once-vast farm acquired by the state in 1848 with advice from mental health pioneer Dorothea Dix, must continue to bear her name.

Mental health advocates were shocked a decade ago when the state, in the name of mental health reform, decided to close Dorothea Dix, folding it into a new, smaller hospital in Granville County.

Moving the hospital away from the region's population center was a bad decision. Still, the days of confining the mentally ill in massive psychiatric hospitals are past, and the need now—as I wrote last week—is for community-based housing and supportive programs so people with mental illnesses can live as independently as possible.

The state's done a dreadful job of mental health reform. Its failure, however, is no reason not to make the best use of Dix Hill in the future. A great park on the hill will be North Carolina's gift to ourselves.

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