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Planning Dix (and not planning Plensa)

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So now, three years into its deliberations, the General Assembly's Dorothea Dix Hospital Property Study Commission is bringing in the Urban Land Institute to tell it what to do with the 306-acre site. Is that a good idea?

Well, sure, says Sue Sturgis, on www.raleigheconews.com, as long as you know that ULI is the nonprofit arm of "big real estate," backed by mega-developers and investors like Citigroup Property Investors and AIG Real Estate Investment Corp. "Who better to turn to for property development expertise than property developers?" she adds acidly.

Sturgis, an ex-Indy staffer who still writes for us on environmental issues, was not at all pleased with the story The News & Observer produced about the hiring, which might have led you to think ULI was a conservation group (and a "prestigious" one at that) if you didn't know better.

Of course, she's been working lately in New Orleans, where the recommendations of a post-Katrina ULI task force (led by Raleigh developer Smedes York) were not well-received, to put it mildly, by activists who read them as disempowering low-income neighborhoods while their residents were still exiled in Houston.

On the other hand, Raleigh City Councilor Russ Stephenson, an architect and planner himself, says ULI's been "anti-sprawl" for more than a decade and represents the progressive side of the real-estate industry. But Stephenson, too, cautions against assuming that ULI will know all, or tell all, about Dix. Much will depend on which of its members volunteer for the job, he says.

Right. The decision about Dix's future is one for local people to make, not outside "experts"--regardless of how good they are. But first, Dix must be wrested from the cold dead grip of state government, which doesn't want the land for a psychiatric hospital anymore but could--if left to its own devices--turn it into yet another example of how bad office parks are built. (See, for example, the State Government Mall.)

Toward this end of gaining control, the Dix study commission, which lists six Wake County legislators and Raleigh Mayor Charles Meeker among its 11 members, has been moving at a glacial pace. And yet, I'm persuaded by Rep. Deborah Ross, D-Wake, that it is moving. When it was created in 2003, Ross points out, the General Assembly had in mind mainly mixed-used development on the property and a place for state offices. A park? Not so much. But the newest legislation, appropriating the $60,000 that will pay ULI's expenses, talks about the "developing and financing of a modern urban park."

Progress, in other words.

As described by Trish Healy, a ULI trustee and real-estate financier who recently moved to Raleigh from the West Coast, ULI's task force here will consist of about four visiting folks with varying backgrounds, probably including a park planner, as well as some ULI staffers. (ULI co-authored a book on urban parks with the Trust for Public Lands.) They'll be in Raleigh for just four days at the end of October, producing recommendations before they leave.

Healy promises that the ULI team will have an "unbiased" and "holistic" view of whether Dix should be all-park (and if so, what kind of park) or a combination of parkland and development.

To reach that judgment, they'll look not just at the 306 acres itself, but at what's around it and at Raleigh's other parks too, she promises.

That's the key. Dix doesn't exist in a vacuum. In fact, it's surrounded by lightly developed property, including the State Farmers' Market acreage and big open chunks of NCSU's Centennial Campus, any or all of which could be turned into dense, valuable residential and mixed-use developments.

And the whole shootin' match could be connected to downtown Raleigh, a stone's throw away, by a trolley or other transit connection.

Any ideas from ULI on this score, therefore, should help the study commission, which is supposed to tell the General Assembly what to do in time for the 2007 session.

Once ULI leaves, however, it'll be up to the study commission itself, and to Raleigh officials like Meeker, Stephenson and Councilor Thomas Crowder, who represents the neighborhoods around Dix and is himself a ULI member--to put its best ideas together with others and come up with a proposal that makes sense to the public and that the General Assembly will accept.

And on that last note, Ross says, the less it costs the state, the more likely it is that the General Assembly will say yes.


Goodman ends-a Plensa

The long-running story of Spanish artist Jaume Plensa's proposed Fayetteville Street plaza ended not with a splash of water and light Tuesday but with a fizzle when patron Jim Goodmon, CEO of Capitol Broadcasting, said his $2.5 million pledge was no longer on the table. No hard feelings, Goodmon added, but Raleigh can look elsewhere for the money to pay for a "major" downtown art installation.

The lesson of which is what? Well, Raleigh has an established process for selecting public art, including the places for it and who should design it. Goodmon and N.C. Museum of Art chief Larry Wheeler ignored it when they brought Plensa to town. They could've saved themselves a lot of trouble--and probably produced a great piece of art for Raleigh on Fayetteville Street or somewhere else (Dix?)--if they'd followed it.

Don't forget the WakeUP Wake County meeting Saturday, Sept. 16, 10 a.m.-noon at West Raleigh Presbyterian Church. See you there, on our blog at www.indyweekblogs.com/citizen, or write me at rjgeary@mac.com.

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