From his house in the Boylan Heights neighborhood, Joseph Huberman can see the Dorothea Dix property across Western Boulevard. He's walked Dix Hill many times with his family. A neighborhood leader and an artist with a bent for building things, Huberman was named to the first legislative study commission on Dix. That was about 10 years ago.
As Huberman recalls it, the campaign for a destination park on Dix Hill began with neighborhood meetings in Boylan Heights and nearby Kirby-Bilyeu. The meetings "morphed into" Friends of Dix, which later spawned Dix 306 when some advocates thought their calm campaign of persuasion needed a more hard-hitting public component.
The problem the advocates faced was that most state legislators, having voted to close Dorothea Dix Hospital, expected the land to be sold for development. And top city officials either thought that preserving the land was unrealistic or else preferred some development and a smaller park.
Meanwhile, developers lurked.
Huberman, a veteran of numerous park planning committees in Raleigh, was convinced that 306 acres—all of Dix Hill—was at the low end of successful destination parks in the country. Any fewer, he thought, and you might have a nice local park, but it could never be a draw for people coming from other places—nor the spark for economic development that a great park can be.
He and a growing band of 306 supporters pressed their view at meeting after meeting, countering experts and consultants brought in to tout some version of a development/ park hybrid. Eventually, the hybrid plans lost to an energized public with a greater vision.
Fast forward to 2012, on the eve of what later proved to be victory, when some leaders in the campaign to create a Central Park in Raleigh gathered on the high ground of Dix Hill for a final public appeal. The sloping landscape of the former state hospital grounds was a beckoning canvas before the vista of downtown Raleigh.
"I'm trying to think of really great things that have happened for this state and for the Triangle and for Raleigh since I've been here" over a 40-year span, said Jim Goodmon, CEO of Capitol Broadcasting Co. "I can't think of anything that matches the notion of a Dix Park."
Goodmon lauded the efforts of Gregory Poole Jr., the Raleigh businessman who started the Dix Visionaries, a group of business elites. Poole, retired chairman of Gregory Poole Equipment Co., credited the members of Friends of Dorothea Dix Park and Dix 306, two groups that came before his. "They had the vision before I ever realized [the land] was at risk," Poole said.
Don't forget the Sierra Club and the Triangle Greenways Council, Poole added.
And don't forget Raleigh Mayors Charles Meeker and Nancy McFarlane, who helped push the campaign over the finish line. Or is it the start line? The work of planning a great destination park now begins in earnest.
The victory rolls also include former Gov. Bev Perdue. The day after the Dix group gathered, Perdue gained approval from the Council of State for the deal she'd negotiated with McFarlane and the Raleigh City Council.
For 75 years, with a 25-year option to renew, Raleigh will lease the entire 325-acre Dix Hospital property for up to $500,000 a year. The rent will be reduced until the state employees who work there are moved out. The lease includes additional property, swelling the total acreage from 306 to 325, all that remains of the 2,000-acre tract acquired in 1848 for the original Dorothea Dix Hospital.
Perdue and McFarlane signed the lease on Dec. 28 in an upbeat ceremony at the State Capitol. So many celebrated our holiday present to posterity, in fact, that it was easy to forget what an uphill fight the park's proponents faced when they started a decade ago. And to forget that this was a battle won, ultimately, by thousands of citizens.
Carol Apperson, a program administrator at N.C. State University, was on the Friends of Dix board. She was also active in Dix 306, which, at a critical junction, delivered some 5,000 distinctive green-and-white yard signs to citizens who wanted to publicly support the preservation of the entire Dix property—and to oppose the sale of any of it for development.
Apperson believed in "seizing the moment." Then the moment became a marathon. "There've been a lot of ups and downs," she acknowledged, "and it's taken a lot of patience and hard work. But in the end, we have our destination park!"
The victory was all about "the civic process," Huberman says, marked by two key turning points.
One was Poole's entry on the all-park side, when he dropped in to listen to one of the "expert" plans and got up to make an impassioned speech against it. Soon Poole was hiring experts of his own and forming the Visionaries.
The second was when Meeker, who had been pro-hybrid, backed 306. (Disclosure: Meeker is the brother of Richard Meeker, co-owner of INDY Week.)
It was four more years until the state closed Dix Hospital, which gave advocates time to neutralize legislative opponents and persuade. Advocates credit McFarlane, who took office one year ago, with dogged negotiating to reach the final deal.
Now the question is, what kind of park will this Central/Dix Park be? Ideas include a concert pavilion, amusement rides, walking and bicycle trails, and—a popular one—a museum in the original hospital building, with walking tours of the grounds to share the story of Dorothea Dix and our state's commitment to treat mental illness.
"There are a lot of different ways you can configure this land that would be great," Huberman says. "I don't have a preconceived idea. We need a framework, and then it will take decades to make it happen."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Parks and re-creation."