Weren't we supposed to have a City Council election in Raleigh this year? And indeed we will, in October, candidates or not. Because one thing we're not short of in the Cap City is issues, notwithstanding that few so far are running on any of them. Let me start with the obvious issue: Dorothea Dix. That ball is squarely in the city's court, volleyed there by the Easley administration's plan to start building offices for the Department of Health and Human Services atop Dix Hill—forthwith.
Time for the council to stop its navel-gazing and make a play if it wants Dix to be Raleigh's future Central Park.
Here's the situation as best I can determine it. The state—meaning Gov. Easley but mainly DHHS and the legislators who matter in the General Assembly—is quite uninterested in giving or even selling Dix to Raleigh. Three reasons for that. One is, most legislators ain't from here and represent less-affluent places where the idea of helping out us richies in Raleigh is not popular; the legislative leadership reflects their view. Two, DHHS is a bureaucracy with more than 1,000 employees up on Dix Hill already, many in dilapidated hospital quarters; it's got a plan to consolidate the rest of its people there and it's fighting for it. But the big reason is three: Raleigh's never made an offer.
If the city wants Dix, it's gotta put some money on the table, and soon. How much? I've heard $75 million and up, but that's setting the cart before the horse. The point isn't the final price, it's that the land isn't for sale and isn't going to be until the city makes an opening bid large enough to get the General Assembly's attention and force DHHS to back off.
Now let me add this: If there were any chance that DHHS would reverse course and decide—as it should've five years ago—to build a new psychiatric hospital on the Dix grounds, then fine, that's what should happen. Or if Wake County wanted to build one there, also fine.
But I'm told DHHS is absolutely dug in; and if Wake should eventually build a county hospital, it'll go next to the now-private WakeMed so as to share basic housekeeping.
Of course, any money the city does pay for Dix must be ticketed for the state's Mental Health Trust Fund, that perpetually empty bucket.
I was also told about a meeting last week of the General Assembly's leaders and key Wake legislators in which the former told the latter: Get your act together on Dix or we won't be able to do anything for you. The reason: Easley's plan is in his proposed 2007-08 budget, and if DHHS manages to get it into the final budget, it'll be the death knell for our Central Park.
Word is that Mayor Charles Meeker will announce his own Dix initiative any day now—but I heard that a month ago, too, when I started to write a similar column and held back because friends in the Dix 306 group told me that the mayor's plan was imminent and would be favorable to the Central Park idea. It's clear that Meeker has indeed dropped the scheme of selling off the "Great Field" for development in order to finance a cut-rate Dix park (the so-called ULI plan). But that begs the question: If not the cheap way, mayor, then what way?
Strangely, Meeker's backing a $97 million bond issue for other parks to go on the ballot this fall. It's got money for a nice Neuse River Greenway Park. But so far, not a dime for Dix.
Other election issues? Raleigh's got a boatload under the general category of: What's going to be in the new comprehensive plan that's going to replace our old swiss-cheese plan from 1989? Issues like:
Infill: Should what's built next door, or down the block, be required to "fit" with its surroundings or not? On this subject, as so many, the current comp-plan is loose.
Affordable housing: Should the bigger developments be required to have some? So far, they're not.
Tall buildings: Anywhere "the market" allows? Or just downtown? And define tall—the current plan doesn't.
Walkable streets: Require doorsteps and store windows on the street? Or are parking decks and the backsides of condos still OK?
Transit-oriented development: Should high-density developments be clustered along prospective rail- and bus-transit routes? Or scattered around like gas was still 30 cents a gallon?
Put them all together, and you have the meta-question whether fast-growing Raleigh will be a healthy, well-planned city with a place for everybody or one with a lot of new development that doesn't quite add up to the sum of its parts.
And candidates? So far, we have neighborhood leader Nancy McFarlane taking on Councilor Tommy Craven in District A (North Raleigh) and ex-Councilor Mary Watson Nooe jumping into the at-large race with incumbents Russ Stephenson and Joyce Kekas. The at-large field could have a bunch of others soon.
Oh, and many folks are talking about, but no one so far has declared, a race against District B Councilor Jessie Taliaferro.
And what of Meeker? As in '05, our popular mayor—with one foot in the neighborhood camp and the other in the developers'—should skate to re-election with ease.