At the end of the community forum in Raleigh a week ago about the future of the Dorothea Dix property, I made three notes to myself about what the priorities ought to be. First, preserve the natural green spaces, accounting for probably one-third of the 307 acres. Second, the proposed Wake County psychiatric hospital should go there, along with some needed–and related–transitional housing units for folks with mental illnesses, which could be mixed in with other market-rate and affordable housing so as not to be some kind of ghetto. Third, there’s no imperative right now to do anything. Hold back, I wrote, and don’t screw this up. That third response–hold back–was reinforced Monday night when the Wake chapter of NAMI, the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, got together to talk about the county hospital plan. As you may have read, Wake-NAMI President Ann Akland is spearheading the drive to have a new, 60-bed inpatient facility ready in Raleigh when the state finally closes the doors at Dorothea Dix Hospital, an event scheduled to occur in 2007. The Wake County commissioners have pledged $10 million toward the estimated $30 million construction cost, WakeMed CEO Bill Atkinson is offering to manage it once built, and UNC Hospitals has the psychiatric-care expertise–it’s a start. I’ll come back to the subject of why it’s only a start in a subsequent column.

As far as the Dix tract is concerned, however, the point is that nobody involved with the new mental-health facility seems to want it there, at least not so far. The old buildings at Dix were designed as an asylum, said Dr. Robert Golden, chair of the psychiatry department at UNC and vice dean of the medical school. A modern psychiatric facility is best located near a general hospital and its radiology department, its CAT scans and its anesthesiologists. Yes, and near to its food and laundry services as well, the practical-minded Dr. Atkinson agreed, unless the county wants to wash the sheets and towels itself.

Then, too, said Dr. David Filipowski, a private-practice psychiatrist who chairs the Continuum of Care subcommittee of the Wake County Human Services board, you want to integrate the new hospital with important community services, many of which the county already has clustered near WakeMed. So if WakeMed does indeed become the managing partner, Filipowski said, “I don’t know if we’d want [the new hospital] that far away.”

Hearing this, even Akland, whose plea at the Dix forum on behalf of those with mental illnesses was so compelling, agreed that the new facility itself need not go there. She said there are lots of ways the site might honor its history and the mission of the eponymous woman who founded Dorothea Dix Hospital in 1856.

All the more reason, Raleigh, to slow down.

Let’s not forget, what’s driving the Dix process isn’t the discovery, all of a sudden, that Raleigh must have a world-class botanical garden, or aquarium, or vocational school, or amusement park, to name just a few of the swell ideas moving smartly into what people seem to have convinced themselves is a void.

No, what’s driving it is the fact that the state, which owns the tract, is dumping its mental-health portfolio to save money (“Here, counties, you do it–good luck!”); and speaking of money, 307 rolling acres overlooking the Capitol City is worth megabucks if sold to the highest bidder. Builders, needless to say, are drooling. And so, it’s apparent, is the state.

When we say “state,” of course, we’re talking about an apparition that comprises the governor; a few important legislators, all Democrats; their developer and road-building friends, who are so kind as to run our politics for us; and they’s-all’s go-go real-estate mentality, in which every scenic vista is a subdivision opportunity.

Or perhaps Gov. Mike Easley has some other idea in mind that–characteristically–he has yet to reveal. Remember, the Dix tract was once 2,000 acres-plus, about half of which former Gov. Jim Hunt just gave to NCSU for its Centennial Campus as he was leaving office the first time. Would Easley just give the remaining land to Raleigh? Or Wake County? Or some trusteeship? Probably not, given the stink he’s made about legislators trying to give state land to their favorite causes and counties.

At any rate, “the state’s” current thinking was clear enough from the three “models” its chosen consultant, Brad Davis, (of Land Design Inc. in Charlotte–where else?), showed to the Dix forum. Think about the Presidio in San Francisco, once a military base, Davis said. Think about the old mental-hospital tract in D.C., where they’re building the new Washington Nationals baseball stadium. Think about where the old airport was in Denver. Every one of them is being redeveloped as “a combination of mixed-use and open space.”

Looking at a map of the Dix site, Davis encouraged his listeners to reach the desired conclusion: open space along the creek on the south side of Western Boulevard and up the hill; open space along the other creeks and pathways at the back of the site, near Centennial Campus; elsewhere, developable as “mixed-use.”

Conveniently, Raleigh’s transportation plans include a future “thoroughfare” connecting Centennial to the Boylan Heights neighborhood at West Morgan Street and bisecting the Dix tract, Davis noted.

You could almost see the condos going up beside it.

Mixed-use so close to downtown conjures images for me of Coker Towers times about 10. Developer Neal Coker’s failed project, initially consisting of condos, offices, a shopping mall with movie theaters and an enormous parking deck, was on 15 acres and was a good ways from downtown, remember; here we have 100-150 acres that not only overlook downtown but are potentially connected directly to it not just by a hypothetical roadway but by an existing rail line, still used for freight, that runs from Boylan Heights to Dix and south toward Garner. Potentially, those Dix Hill Towers are right on a TTA spur.

Coker paid upwards of $10 million for his land in hopes of building almost 2 million square feet of stuff there. On the open market, near a future transit station, what does that make the Dix tract worth?

So, NIMBY-me, who joined the fight against Coker Towers, I’m against developing Dix, right? Not necessarily. But I am against developing it now.

The reason I am is that, right now, it’s downtown Raleigh that needs to develop; in a decade of so, when we’ve seen how the downtown’s turned out, we can look at Dix with a clearer sense of what our city still lacks. On the other hand, turn a developer loose on Dix Hill today, and you’ll cut the ground right out from under any momentum downtown Raleigh might achieve with its new convention center and its new Fayetteville Street and its new, hoped-for West Side TTA stop, and so on.

Long term, I’m not sure Dix needs to be all park, as so many of those who came to the forum want it to be. We have, out at the N.C. Museum of Art, a 164-acre park already under way that nobody’s discovered yet, and the new pedestrian bridge over the Beltline is designed to connect it–eventually–all the way to downtown. That is, if we ever redo Hillsborough Street.

I think downtown Raleigh’s biggest need is housing, including affordable housing. Eventually–but not yet–Dix will be downtown too.

On the other hand, maybe Dix should be all park. All I know for sure is that nobody’s put a plan together–with actual money–that would make a park happen. Meanwhile, the state’s in a big rush to cash in. The next Dix forum is on May 18, when “alternatives” will be presented for our consideration. The third, and last, meeting, slated for July 17, will tell us what “we” have chosen. Get it?

Ideally, the city and county would establish a trusteeship and give it enough money–perhaps in the form of a designated impact fee?–to buy Dix Hill and hold it for future use as a park, gardens, an aquarium, whatever. Long term, it’s a great investment any way you slice it. At the moment, though, the city’s fixated on the convention center, and the county on its burgeoning school costs.

Come to think of it, Dix Hill would be a great place for one of Mike Easley’s new-fangled high school-community college combos, yes? So if the county kicks in for a school site, and the city follows, and we get some foundations interested …

But right now, the imperative is to stop the state from messing it all up.