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Roundabout Raleigh

The city's Ferris wheel of progress turns slowly

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The Dorothea Dix Hospital Property Study Commission seemed to fizzle out this week. The Hillsborough Street project is stalled like I-40 at nightfall. Or, come to think of it, like public transit.

So am I "satisfied" with Raleigh's progress, as Mayor Charles Meeker tells me to be? Well, all I can say is, I agree with the other thing Hizzoner said Monday in his "State of the City" address, which was: "Be persistent."

Let me elaborate on that sentence, if I may, for our verbally economical mayor. Since Raleigh moves at a glacial pace, and well behind the curve, anybody who tries thinking ahead better buckle up for the long haul. As Meeker did, certainly, on the downtown convention center. He still had tousled hair when, as a city councilor, he took his first swing at that one—and missed. Two decades later: It's going up.

In the spirit of persistence, then, and despite the negative headlines, I believe the idea of a destination park at Dix is actually advancing, if ever so slowly. And Hillsborough Street ain't dead, either. Nor transit. They only look that way.

DIX PARK

Monday afternoon, the Dix study commission, created by the General Assembly, did not endorse a major urban park, prompting "no" votes from public members Joe Huberman, representing Friends of Dix Park, and Barbara Goodmon, president of the A.J. Fletcher Foundation. The good news, though, is that it also did not endorse the Urban Land Institute (ULI) plan, which called for selling off most of the Dix Hill high ground to developers.

Instead, the commission punted, adopting vague principles of good will toward humanity.

But the best news of all is that Meeker, who's nothing if not a realist, is also backing away from the ULI plan, and now talks about a park of "at least" 215 acres, "the bigger the better."

Close readers of our Nov. 29 story, "Imagining Dix," will recall that to get to 215 acres, let alone more, out of the total 306-acre tract, you've either got to protect The Big Field—which is crucial, in my opinion, if there's going to be a real park up there—or else swap it to NCSU for some of their tangential Spring Hill land, which was the bad idea at the heart of the ULI scheme.

But NCSU isn't interested in swapping, Meeker confirmed after the meeting.

That's excellent news, too.

So, ball's back in the city's court. The state, our Wake legislators tell me, isn't that interested in selling Dix in the first place, at least not for the $40 million bandied about so far. But "imagine" this: The city, with contributions by Greg Poole and his Dix Visionaries, offers $40 million for, say, 230 acres while guaranteeing that the state Department of Health and Human Services can stay put in its buildings on the other 70-odd acres for "X" number of years.

Most of the buildings are in awful shape, so "X" needn't be a big number so long as the city also avoids the second trap in the ULI scheme, which was to buy the buildings and become the state's landlord, with "upfit" responsibilities of $67 million. Plus.

Meeker didn't mention Dix in his "State o' The City" speech, but when somebody asked the question, he was ready with remarks about "a great destination park" and lots of "activities," perhaps including gardens, an amphitheater, even a Ferris wheel.

A Ferris wheel?

Yes!

Now you're talking, mayor.

HILLSBOROUGH STREET

It's not blighted, says architect Ted Van Dyke in a note about our story last week. OK, but it's hardly a credit to Raleigh, either. "It is a dead street," as NCSU student body President Will Quick told the City Council on Tuesday.

Ever since the '99 charettes, I've had the Garden District of New Orleans in mind for Hillsborough Street. No, really. Not the arsenic-and-old-lace thing, but a distinctive "place" between downtown and the university campus—here, NCSU; there, Tulane—where people like to go, and be, and live, and get there on a trolley.

Hillsborough Street should be a bustling boulevard of stores and apartments of every price and size, a linear extension of our downtown that connects to our other downtown, the one that's coming soon out by the fairgrounds and the arena and the museum of art. Instead, it's been turned into a highway, and not an efficient (or safe) one, at that.

Well, Van Dyke's been asking a lot of us Hillsborough Street proponents some good questions lately about exactly what kind of "place" we have in mind if and when the proposed roundabouts are built. And I must agree, while I have my answer and others have theirs, I think before we start tearing up the street, it would be well for us to get together—and the property owners, too, starting with NCSU—and see if our answers dovetail.

I think they will.

The good news here: Councilor Joyce Kekas, to date a naysayer, has grabbed hold of planning director Mitch Silver's comments to the Indy and asked him to lead a reappraisal of the roundabouts plan and its economic impacts. She even had a nice word to say about a roundabout in Annapolis, Md. Stay tuned; that 4-4 deadlock could be breaking our way.

TRANSIT

Finally, our two area transportation planning groups, CAMPO (on the Raleigh side) and DCHC (Durham-Chapel Hill-Carrboro), have agreed on a 24-member advisory group—14 for CAMPO, 10 DCHC—to choose future transit corridors for the region. That only took six months. Twenty years after the TTA rail planning started, it starts again.

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