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With an agreement reached to preserve the land at Dorothea Dix Hospital, Raleigh government leaders and citizen groups can turn their attention to the fun part: drawing up plans for a destination park more than a decade in the making.
There will be plenty of ideas to consider. Over the years, suggestions have included an outdoor amphitheater, a botanical garden, a water park and an extension of nearby Pullen Park, which draws crowds to its popular train and carousel.
Dix park advocates hope to renovate some buildings on the Dix grounds for art galleries or other public uses. As a first step, the city will perform an assessment to determine the condition of the buildings and grounds. Raleigh officials will begin the work “as soon as we can,” Mayor Nancy McFarlane said.
The planning effort got a boost last week when an advocacy group called the Dix Visionaries pledged $3 million to commission a master plan for the park.
“We’re going to see design talent from all across the country competing for this opportunity,” said Mark Turner, chairman of the city’s parks and greenways board. “You’ve got this land next to a large city. It’s going to attract attention.”
Turner said he would not rule out any possibilities, including an extension of Pullen Park or a spur that would allow the Pullen Park miniature train ride to cross Western Boulevard and enter the Dix campus.
“It’s the public’s park, and the public should get to decide,” Turner said.
Getting people to the park
In terms of mass transit, park advocates have talked about using an existing rail line for some type of rail shuttle that would ferry visitors from downtown to Dix. A rubber-tired bus loop is more realistic, said City Councilman Thomas Crowder.
In 2006, a panel from the nonprofit Urban Land Institute visited Raleigh for a state-sponsored planning exercise. The group proposed that the city preserve much of the campus as park land and allow development on other portions.
Other plans called for condominiums and townhouses only outside the property’s current borders.
“We’re going to start from scratch,” McFarlane said.
Under the deal, the state will retain ownership of the land; the city will pay $500,000 a year, plus 1.5 percent annual increases, in a deal worth $68 million over the 75-year life of the lease.
John Odom, the City Council’s lone Republican, voted against the lease deal. He said the city was taking on too much risk with the old, asbestos-laden buildings and potential environmental hazards at the site.
Under the agreement, the state pays for operations and maintenance only during the period it remains on the property.
“The mayor said she’s going to do an assessment on the park (land),” Odom said. “You’re supposed to do that before you make a deal. That’s how little we know about this.”
McFarlane defended the city’s approach. “We’ve been listening to different opinions on a sale, lease and everything else for seven years,” she said. “It finally came down to this agreement, and it’s something that works for the city and state.”