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With Dix Park planning, Raleigh has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity

Richard Hardison, left, and Christa Vick, right, play cornhole in front of the Downtown Raleigh skyline at the first Spring Fling at Dix Park in Raleigh, N.C. on Sunday, April 9, 2017.
Richard Hardison, left, and Christa Vick, right, play cornhole in front of the Downtown Raleigh skyline at the first Spring Fling at Dix Park in Raleigh, N.C. on Sunday, April 9, 2017.

Raleigh has a once-in-a-lifetime chance to develop what could be the city's equivalent to New York's Central Park. And Raleigh leaders want to make sure they get it right.

While the city is in the middle of a yearlong planning process, several ideas for the 308-acre Dorothea Dix Park are beginning to take shape. Some of those concepts — including a land bridge across Western Boulevard and what could be done with the park's 85 buildings — were unveiled by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, the firm overseeing the master plan process for the park, during a public presentation this month.

"It's just an unparalleled opportunity," said Sean Malone, CEO of Dix Park Conservancy, a nonprofit organization that supports the development and operation of the park. "The last time a city got to create a park like this, this kind of acreage in the heart of the city, was in the mid-19th century. And the next time a city is going to get to do this is never."

The park's neighbors

Despite being a short walk from downtown and N.C. State University, the park isn't easy to get to. Located off Western Boulevard, the site was home to Dorothea Dix psychiatric hospital and former orphanage. A challenge for landscape architects and planners is connecting the park to its neighbors and the people who will live, work and play there.

A land bridge across Western Boulevard has been proposed to connect Dix Park to Pullen Park in the northern part, while designers want to connect Dix to the state Farmers Market in the south, eventually connected by way of Walnut Creek to reach Lake Raleigh.

"The important thing about master planning is the details almost don't matter," said Matt Urbanski, principal in charge of design. "But the concept is absolutely critical."

Jennifer Hoverstad, a parks and recreation board member, takes a photograph with her daughter during a weekly guided tour of Dix Park in 2016. Travis Long

The land bridge across Western and integration into the Farmers Market are concepts that have to be agreed upon. But the where, when and how much it will cost can be left to be filled in later during the design process.

"This park can only be as great if we have everyone in the community get involved," said Kate Pearce, a city senior planner working on the project. "We hope people come and share their ideas and talk about their concerns and really think big and bold about the future of Dix Park. We want them to be inspired. To learn a little bit about the site."

Playing in the park

Mary Humphrey and her boys, 12-year-old Joe and 9-year-old Michael, live in downtown Raleigh, well within walking or biking distance to Dix Park. They already use the big fields for flying kites, launching rockets and watching people fly remote-controlled airplanes.

"We are specially interested in the type of things they'll incorporate into Dix for kids," she said. "So we were just talking about a remote controlled racetrack for RC cars, and ice cream trucks, being a part of the park."

Through public input sessions and workshops, the design firm has begun to take some of the ideas for the park and figure out how they'd work in the space.

"It has to be something that can work in all seasons," Urbanski said. "It has to work for people of every age and development in their lives."

Some of the ideas that have come up include a "pollinator pavilion" that would feature flower gardens, picnic tables and educational opportunities; a modern plaza area with covered shelters; areas for food trucks and water features. Outdoor spaces for art, music and physical activities will also be essential.

What about those buildings?

Unique to the park are nearly 100 buildings with more than 1 million square feet of space.

But for a building to stay on the property it would have to be occupied and to purposely fit with the park. Some people may argue that aging and poorly maintained buildings will be a drain on a new park and should all be torn down. Others may say buildings should remain because of their historical significance, regardless of how much that's true.

The two-story dining halls on the property could be opened up, with the second-floor removed for covered basketball courts, similar to those at American Tobacco Campus in Durham, or for outdoor festivals and fairs. The Broughton Building, part of the state's department of health and human services campus, could be retrofitted for two- or three-bedroom apartments for seasonal or temporary housing for park stewards, gardeners or counselors.

Helen Beidler worked as a nurse at the hospital and at the state department of health and human services. The park's connection to mental health is an important one, she said, and the new space should "help feed the spirit" through a bond with nature.

"I've spent a lot of time on the campus over the years," she said. "I hope that some of the memories will be preserved. That you can still access those memories as you walk through the space. But I really look forward to it being recreational and a place where people can really recreate and have their spirits fed."

The park's buildings will be one of the major topics at the next large public workshop, planned for June.

Anna Johnson; 919-829-4807; @anna_m_johnson

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