The lease for the Dorothea Dix property was finalized by the City of Raleigh four weeks ago, but it could be several years before local residents see any changes to the 325-acre parcel of land in Southwest Raleigh.
The Dix property is officially a city park now, with the exception of 15 acres still in use by the state. City staff and community members are now getting ready to start talking about the vision for Dix in the future.
“The campus will continue to operate and look very much like it has,” explained city manager Russell Allen.
For those already using the land once known as Dix Hill, this comes as welcome news.
Jonathan and Christine Brenner have been taking their German shepherd Ziggy to Dix several times a week for the past five years.
“I wasn’t too thrilled when I found out Raleigh bought it, because I’m afraid they’re going to come in and turn it into a typical city park,” Jonathan Brenner said. “We like the fact that it’s wide and open, and we can take the dog, let him run around.”
“And while you’re here, you can watch the [radio-controlled] planes, and there’s usually a golfer,” Christine Brenner added. “Everyone has their own activities.”
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Steps to Park Planning
According to the lease agreement, the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services has up to 15 years to relocate the offices it maintains at Dix. In the meantime, the state will remain responsible for the maintenance of all buildings and grounds on the property it uses.
Although the city is free to build upon any portion of the land not in use by the state, leaders must first decide what to build.
“We have our parks planning process,” Allen said. “First, before the master plan at all is designed, you engage your various stakeholders in the community.”
John Hoal is the principal of H3 Studio. His firm has been involved in the design and revitalization of a number of parks across the country, and was brought on by the Dix Visionary Group to do early conceptual work for the Dix property.
The master planning of a park, Hoal said, has never taken less than 18 months to complete and tends to follow roughly the same trajectory, regardless of its size or city of origin.
The first step often begins with public feedback. Although an ongoing part of the process, Hoal explained that it plays a crucial role in establishing an overall vision for the park.
Once this has been established, the various architects, engineers and outside consultants working on the project begin to look much closer at the physical characteristics of the land.
Dix could be a bit more complicated than usual, Hoal said.
“There’s some environmental issues that you have to deal with, and you’ve got a lot of buildings that have to be surveyed,” he said. “I think the actual physical master planning of this is going to take a while.”
In Hoal’s experience, the first step – engaging the community – is often the most time-consuming.
For example, the master planning of Forest Park in St. Louis, Mo. took two and a half years and included 50 community meetings.
“By the time we really got through everything, it was three and a half years of work before we even could sort of put a shovel in the ground," he said. “And then we’ve been putting shovels in the ground piecemeal and based upon funding for the last 15 years."
“I think it’s really important for a community that is taking on, effectively, a brand new 300-acre park to realize how long it’s going to take,” Hoal said.
In an email to The Record, Capital Improvements Program Manager Stephen Bentley said the Raleigh City Council has not yet determined a framework for Dix’s planning process.
Until that framework is adopted, Bentley explained there is no way to estimate how long the process may take.
Raleigh’s Park Planning Past
In 2009 the City started a master planning process for Moore Square. Planning began with a host of public information sessions and a design competition put together by the city and the state Historic Preservation Office. Christopher Counts Studio of Charlottesville, Va. was eventually selected to oversee the project.
During the next two years, Counts Studio developed an official Master Plan — a rough draft of the drawings that will be used in the construction phase of the process.
The final stages of design will begin following an environmental study of the soil and existing greenery on the property, which is scheduled for completion later this year. With these phases will come more public input and information sessions. City officials estimate the entire process through construction will take seven years.
According to city officials, it is too early to say whether the Dorothea Dix planning will follow a similar process as Moore Square. Bentley said at this point, he can’t even say whether the process would line up with the city’s established park master planning guidelines, which adhere to national best practice standards.
In conjunction with the Moore Square master plan and a number of individual park renovations, Raleigh’s Parks and Recreation Department is in the process of developing a new long-range system plan. The plan’s stated purpose is to “shape the direction, development and delivery of the city’s parks and recreation services over the next 20 years.”
Dorothea Dix is not included in the current draft of this plan.
Dorothea Dix Today
Although Dix Hill is more state land than city park at this point, locals have grown fond of the large, open vistas spread across its 325 acres. The largest and most popular is a field located off the campus’ Barbour Drive. On a recent Sunday afternoon, it hosted a range of visitors – runners, dog-walkers and radio-controlled plane enthusiasts among them.
“My favorite part,” said Jonathan Brenner, “is that it’s not overly regulated, and the fact that, generally, everybody keeps to themselves, and everybody’s safe.
“You don’t have to worry about being hassled for, say, the dog being off leash,” he added, gesturing to a panting Ziggy patiently awaiting a new game of fetch.
Whatever changes park planning may bring to Dix, some hope that freedom and open space remain.
Justin Jones and Hobert Orton are former members of the flying club Regular Dudes R/C. They heard about the open space at Dix through word of mouth and began piloting their collection of planes and helicopters on the land nearly two years ago.
“It’s a beautiful place for this kind of stuff,” Orton said. “You don’t find fields like this too often, you know, the trees are far away, it’s a beautiful view, a nice place to be.
“It’s a public field," he said.