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Dorothea Dix plan: The Urban Land Institute's plan is not exactly a park

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Returning to Raleigh, I see that Mayor Charles Meeker is finally ready to make a move on the Dorothea Dix tract. As many obstacles as there are in the way of his breaking through to a great urban park there, however, he still needs to zig some and zag some more, or else he's gonna get thrown for a loss.

Meeker chose to run behind the plan offered a couple of weeks ago by the visiting team of Urban Land Institute members. It consisted of two ideas: One, the city should buy the land from the state; and two, it should let developers loose on one-third of it—or more—in order to finance keeping the rest of it as a park.

This is perhaps not the impression you got from reading the top-of-page-one headline in the daily paper, "Meeker champions park at Dix," with its accompanying subhead, "Nonprofit would be formed to buy the 300 acres; donations and bonds would raise $40 million for it."

True, the ULI plan is for the city to create a nonprofit and buy all 306 acres. However, the suggested name of the nonprofit, the Dix Campus Development Corporation, tells the rest of the ULI story: Fully 100 acres would be sold off for residential development, and additional acreage would be reserved for the long-term presence of state offices.

A 30-year lease with the state Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) was suggested as a revenue source to support $30 million in DCDC bonds. Another $10 million could come from private donations that would flow to a separate group, which ULI dubbed the Dix Park Conservancy.

Which leaves how much land for the park?

According to ULI, it leaves 215 acres, because NCSU is supposed to throw in part of its Spring Hill property in exchange for some of Dix's, and let's not forget the State Farmers' Market, and around and around she goes until everybody's happy and it doesn't cost anybody anything. I'm summarizing freely now, but you get the idea. Cures what ails ya.

But if everyone involved can't "play in the same sandbox," says local ULI representative Trish Healy, then the park shrinks to just 175 acres.

Uh-oh.

I've had a half-dozen conversations with folks involved with Friends of Dorothea Dix Park, the citizens group whose name explains its purpose. Without betraying confidences, I can report that they're not real pleased with the ULI scheme. Nor are they thrilled with Meeker, who's been pushing hard for them to "embrace" the plan in full and keep their reservations about it—about the amount of land that would be turned over to developers, that is—to themselves.

And indeed, that's what they've done so far, issuing only a bland statement by Jay Spain, their president, which calls the ULI panel's ideas "a starting point for discussions of what a great urban park can be." The Friends, not incidentally, have commissioned their own plan for Dix, which was drawn up by two other ULI members (also outsiders—one from Chicago, the other from St. Louis), and it calls for much more park and less development. "(We) are confident our team can leverage our ongoing work within the framework of the outline presented" by ULI, Spain added.

"Framework of an outline?" That sounds pretty sketchy, doesn't it? But in fact, that's all ULI produced—and all anyone should have expected it to produce. Raleigh should buy Dix. That much we're known since the day the state said it was closing Dix Hospital. ULI panel member Tom Murphy, the former mayor of Pittsburgh, challenged Meeker to make it happen, and Meeker said yes.

So far, so good.

But is $40 million enough to get the land out of the state's hands? Not really, and in the fine print, ULI's panel said so, noting that if the state were going to lease back buildings it already owns, the reason would be that they're in lousy shape and need upfitting to the tune of, oh, another $60 million or so.

And do we really want DHHS offices in our great urban park long-term?

Before ULI showed up, Meeker was answering that question "no" and arguing the obvious—that state offices should be downtown, and there's no shortage of ugly state parking lots that could be used to supply new digs for DHHS when it vacates Dix.

Still, if DHHS isn't a paying tenant, won't the price go up?

Sure it will, and even the Friends of Dix, who started life believing that all 306 acres of Dix should be parkland (after all, they said, Dix used to be a 2,000-acre tract before the rest of it was developed) has recognized that some of it may have to be sold for development to save the rest.

But 100 acres? With some given over to single-family development right on the ridgeline that overlooks the downtown, as ULI said? And mid-rise development on "the big field"?

No. That's a park plan only a bunch of developers could love.

Meeker's right, the city can't go to the state with its ranks fractured. But it also can't go there with the best part of Dix already given away.

Bottom line: Yes to a DCDC, but watch out who's on it. A true conservancy board will let Dix evolve over time, and become the great hub of Raleigh that it ought to be. On the other hand, if it's a lot of developers, with parks advocates for window dressing, we can kiss Dix Park good-bye.

Write Citizen at rjgeary@mac.com.

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