When Dennis Carmichael, a landscape architect from Virginia, said the “Big Field” at the back of the Dorothea Dix Hospital grounds “has no intrinsic qualities to it,” well, you could just about hear the folks in Raleigh choosing up sides.

Carmichael was a member of the Urban Land Institute (ULI) team that came to town last monthinvited by the General Assembly’s study commissionto take a look at Dix. It recommended that the city buy the Dix tract from the state, keep the front of it green as a “legacy park,” and “partner” with developers to build on the rest, including virtually everything you can’t see from Western Boulevardespecially the “Big Field.”

That steamed some Friends of Dorothea Dix Park members when they heard it, because to them, saving the “Big Field” from development is the key to making Dix a “destination park.” That is, not just a pretty sight to see from downtown Raleigh but such a cool park that it causes people to come to downtown Raleigh in the first place.

“If it’s just a green strip,” says Joseph Huberman, a Friends member whose Boylan Heights house faces the front of Dix from across Western Boulevard, “then it’s not a destination park.”

And there you have it in its simplest terms. The question for Raleigh, reading the best into the two competing plans now in the forefront of public debate, is whether the 306-acre Dix tract should become a great city park complete with gardens and meadows and an exhibition hall or two, or a lovely greensward that sits at the foot of a new, and taxpaying, urban neighborhood.

The difference is that the firstthe Friends of Dix visionmust be imagined, and can be achieved only over a very long period of time.

The secondULI’s neighborhood and park ideais much closer at hand and is far cheaper for the city in the short-run, if not in the long-run, too.

And to steal a phrase from former Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy, another member of the ULI team, talking about how Raleigh’s approached other big land-use decisions “for a while here””It’ll do.”

There’s more to the Dix story than just Raleigh’s end of it, of course. There’s the question of whether the state wants to sell the land in the first placeand at what priceand whether any amount of money can make up for the abandonment of North Carolina’s historic first mental hospital. Mental-health advocates haven’t given up on the idea that if and when the state finishes closing Dix Hospital, the propertyincluding some of the existing buildingsshould be used by local agencies for “state-of-the-art, community-based services for the mentally ill,” as Knightdale’s Gerry Akland says.

If it isn’t, Akland warns, then Wake County could be left without any psychiatric hospital, or detoxification center, or halfway houses for the great numbers of released jail inmates with persistent mental disease. Much like the situation Dorothea Dix found when she visited the prisons, the almshouses and the hidden hovels of Raleigh in 1848.

Dix Hill today

Questions about Dix’s future tend to be framed in a macro wayhow many acres of open space, say, versus how many acres of development? Four “mixed” plans have been offered to date, including the ULI plan, two earlier alternatives drafted by a Charlotte firm (the LandDesign plans), and the “Garden of Lights” plan presented in mid-2005 by the Raleigh and Wake County planning departments. Each saved less than 200 acres of the 306-acre total for open space.

By contrast, the Friends of Dorothea Dix Park plan would accommodate some non-park uses for 20-30 years, but aim to replace them over time. “The really great parks take about 100 years to fully evolve,” Huberman says.

This “some or all park” debate, though, fails to account for the land itself, which is not one big ol’ undifferentiated patch in the middle of nowhere. Rather, it’s a place of four distinct zones that literally touches, at its front and back, the two big economic engines of Raleighthe downtown core and NCSU’s Centennial Campus.

In fact, it’s a little hard to understand all the plans for Dix sometimes because everybody seems to want to blur the property lines, thinking Dix should include land that was once part of the hospital campus but is now NCSU’s or (in the case of the State Farmers’ Market at the rear of Dix) belongs to the N.C. Department of Agriculture.

So it’s helpful to start by touring Dix, zone-by-zone, and locating what’s on it and what’s not.

Click here for a map and photos of Dix today and maps of the proposed plans

1 The Greenbelt

This is the open space you see on your right as you drive toward downtown Raleigh on Western Boulevard. At first, you pass a wooded area that hides a greenway strip and, below it, Rocky Branch, the creek that carries water away from Pullen Lake. When the woods end, you see “The Grove”all dogwoods and oaksand the steeply sloped hillside that leads up to Dix Hospital grounds. This area alone is almost 100 acres. It’s low, it’s wet, it’s pretty, and it’s up a hillin short, it’s undevelopable, and nobody proposes to develop it. The debate over Dix is not about the Greenbelt.

2 The Hospital Grounds

Dix Hospital was placed atop “The Grove” in 1848 for one reason: the great view of the town below was thought to be therapeutic for patients. The hospital spread out, campus-style, over about 75 acres of land in 50-some buildings, many of which are in poor shape or worse today. Dix itself still uses some of them. Others are occupied by approximately 1,500 employees of the state Department of Health and Human Services. Still others are empty. Two things of note about this part of Dix: One, from the front of the hospital, you’ve got a great view of the new Raleigh Convention Center, which is only about half a mile away. And two, the back portion of the hospital grounds rolls downhill toward the Farmers’ Market, is mostly empty, and is separated from the “Big Field” only by a railroad track. There’s no debate about preserving the “historic” core of the hospital. But preserve it for whatoffices or a park?

3 The Big Field

It’s 54 acres, it’s gently sloping, it’s wide open, andwait a minute, did you say railroad track? Yes, and that’s why the “Big Field” is really what this park-versus-neighborhood debate is all about. The track runs from the Farmers’ Market through the center of Dix and into the downtown railroad “Y” (where the Amtrak station is and the TTA station will likely be someday) via a bridge over Western Boulevard. Put the Big Field together with the backside of the hospital grounds and an expanded Farmers’ Market, connect it all via trolley line to the downtown, andwould you rather have Central Park there, or a Georgetown? (Charlestown?) Because the “Big Field” is the one place on Dix where Big Things are possible.

4 The West

Or the Rest, maybe. A lot of what’s on the west side of Dix isn’t actually part of Dix anymore but rather is owned by NCSU (including most of the so-called Spring Hill district, where the original 1770s plantation house still stands) or by the Farmers’ Market. Between Western Boulevard and the top of Spring Hill, though, is part of Dix, but it’s the part that was used for years as a Raleigh city landfill. Now it’s been covered over and turned into soccer fields, and there’s a little mountain behind them where the city dumped dirt from the Convention Center excavation. So every plan you see adds the landfill part of “The West” to “The Greenbelt” and counts it all as 164 acres of parkland. And in the “mixed” plans, that’s almost all the park you get.

Decision in ’07?

The ULI team that came to Raleigh was hired by the Dorothea Dix Hospital Property Study Commission, created by the General Assembly in 2003 following its decision to close Dix and build a new state hospital in Butner (Granville County). ULI is the nonprofit arm of the real estate development industry, whose local members include former Raleigh Mayor Smedes York, a developer, and former Raleigh Planning Director George Chapman, among others.

ULI member-companies have redeveloped other mental hospitals around the country as they, too, were closed, so it’s not surprising that they saw Dix as ripe for housing, offices and a new retail center aligned with the Farmers’ Marketindeed, their report pointed to a similar redevelopment in Traverse City, Mich., as a prototype for Raleigh to follow.

State Rep. Jennifer Weiss, who co-chairs the study commission, says the best thing about the ULI plan is that it addressed “all of the [state’s] concerns” about Dix, including funding for mental health programs and the possible consolidation at Dix of all of the 3,500 DHHS employees who work somewhere in Raleigh. But she cautions that it’s far from certain that legislators from outside the Triangle will want to sell Dix to Raleighat least for ULI’s estimated price tag of $40 million.

“Keep in mind, this is state property, and we’ve got to convince the governor and other state leaders that whatever we recommend is a good deal for the state, not just for Raleigh or Wake County,” Weiss says.

If Raleigh buys it, Weiss likes the idea of dedicating the proceeds to build much-needed community-based facilities for the mentally ill, not just in Wake County but statewide. Whether some might be built at Dix is an open question.

But if part of Dix is developed for profit, Weiss adds, then provisions could be made for “ongoing contributions” by the developers to the same community-facilities fund.

The heart of the ULI scheme, though, is its development plan, which calls for a Dix Campus Development Corp.members appointed by the state, the city and NCSUto develop 1.2 million square feet of office and retail space (including 800,000 square feet for DHHS) and 1,400 single- and multi-family housing units.

If the state will sell for $40 million, ULI says, and if Raleigh can raise $10 million of that from private contributors, the city could easily finance the remaining $30 million with a combination of rent from DHHS and others and additional taxes generated by the developmentwith enough left over to have a nice park on the rest of Dix.

As part of this deal, ULI suggested a land swap with NCSU, giving the university the “Big Field” to develop (in partnership with the Dix Campus Development Corp. and private builders) in exchange for the lower 47 acres of its Spring Hill propertythe less valuable part next to the old landfill.

Working together, ULI said, the Dix development corporation, NCSU and the Department of Agriculture could create “a fabulous new neighborhood” showcasing the best in sustainable urban designs, with an expanded Farmers’ Market anchoring a new shopping center.

What ULI envisions for Dix, however, the Friends of Dix Park want for the existing, older neighborhoods that surround it.

A great urban park at Dix, they say, would be a catalyst for new housing, office and retail development where it’s most needed in downtown Raleigh, which is the Saunders North neighborhoodthe rundown area you see in the foreground when you look down from Dix Hill toward the Convention Center. It would also start to fill in large empty tracts in Caraleigh and Fuller Heights, the neighborhoods bordering Dix to the east on the other side of Lake Wheeler Road.

“Instead of choking off the surrounding retail possibilities with a car-oriented shopping center on Dix,” says Huberman, who represents the Friends group on the state study commission, “our plan would redevelop Saunders North as a town center and make it a nice pedestrian connection between downtown and the park.”

Meanwhile, Dix would be preserved for park-like things that may or may not be in view today, but will emerge over the next century. There’s no shortage of ideas floating arounda botanical garden is one, a science and technology center that shows off NCSU’s best work is another, with exhibits for the kids, naturally. The “Garden of Lights” plan envisioned an outdoor performing arts center, a festival area called Taste of North Carolina (with restaurants and the Farmers’ Market), and the “Big Field” as an open-space “park in the park.”

The Friends this this would more than pay for itself by making Raleigh’s downtown truly world-class. But in the short-run, it would require private donors and the taxpayers to front most of the cost.

The question for Raleighassuming the state will sellis whether a Dix Park is worth it.

To see the ULI presentation and the Friends of Dix Park plan, visit www.huberman.org/uli.