A shower of colorful confetti fluttered through the air at Dorothea Dix Park on Sunday, gently falling down around children at play. In a giant sandbox, elementary schoolers dug up dirt, sifted sand into piles, and built tiny towers and walls.

The flurry of construction was a miniature foreshadowing of a much larger project—construction of the Gipson Play Plaza, an 18.5-acre entrance to the property. Come September, full-sized bulldozers and excavation equipment will arrive along Lake Wheeler Road to start digging.

The play plaza is a huge endeavor that will take at least two years to complete. It involves building a splash pad, restoring a historic home, and replanting native trees and grasses.

Still, it’s a drop in the bucket of the Dix Park Master Plan, which aspires to restore and rebuild almost all of the 308-acre site. The city started planning the park renovation in 2017. Now, five years later, staff are finally breaking ground.

“As people drive down Lake Wheeler Road or walk their dogs through the park, they’re going to see physical transformation,” says Kate Pearce, the city planner in charge of the play plaza project. “This is the first project, and there’s more to come. It’s kind of like, is this the end of the race or the starting line? It’s both.”

Pearce hopes the play plaza will give people an idea of what the park will eventually look like, she says. The plaza is centered around play areas for children, including the splash pad and a waterfall wall; a playground with climbing towers and rope bridges; a sand bowl; a sensory maze; and a swing set area.

Pearce says creating play areas for “all ages and abilities” was important. The playgrounds include elements that are accessible to children and families with disabilities.

When city planners asked families what was most important to them, many also said they wanted some sort of water element for children. The city came up with a water mill mountain, inspired by the water mill in Historic Yates Mill County Park.

Also important to the community was connectivity. The play plaza is designed to be accessible to drivers, walkers, cyclists, and bus riders, according to Pearce. A new bus stop is planned for Lake Wheeler Road, just outside the entrance to the play plaza.

The city plans to add a greenway through the plaza, alongside Lake Wheeler Road, that connects Rocky Branch Trail to Walnut Creek Trail. The new greenway will make it easier for people to walk from downtown to the state farmer’s market or vice versa.

“It is really this invitation,” Pearce says. “We wanted something on the edge that was highly visible, extremely connected to the surrounding neighborhoods as our first project.”

Park plans

City planners held several public meetings, town halls, and online polls to find out what people wanted in the park. Hundreds shared their thoughts, saying they wanted the city to preserve and enhance natural areas and gardens, create a space where people could come together and learn, and offer more art, music, and theater.

“We were at every major street festival, church basements and libraries, and we met with anyone and everyone who wanted to have a voice in the future of the park,” Pearce says. “There were a lot of common themes. Respecting the history of the site. Native plants.”

In addition to building playgrounds, the city plans to restore the Buffaloe House, also known as the House of Many Porches. The space will be used as a welcome center, concession stand, and community space says Pearce.

“We’ve been working with a preservation architect to restore and rehabilitate that building,” she says. “It will have some sort of concessions, where you can go to get an ice cream or an iced tea. It will also have space for the public to use, if there’s a school group that wants to have a classroom session or a community group that wants to have a meeting.”

The final design for the play plaza also includes a new garden and “Piedmont Prairie” along Lake Wheeler Road, which will restore the park’s natural landscape, says Pearce. Preserving the green space in the park is a priority for city staff. Another major component of the Dix Master Plan is restoration of Rocky Branch Creek, a long-neglected waterway that drains into Walnut Creek and ultimately the Neuse River.

The creek’s restoration will follow construction of Gipson Play Plaza, Pearce says. The city plans to widen the stream and restore the site’s natural wetlands. Rocky Branch Creek stretches about a mile along Western Boulevard, and it’s one of the most complex parts of the Dix Master Plan, says Pearce, but one of the most impactful.

“We’re looking at concepts right now that reestablish the natural meander [of the creek], which will have really positive impact to mitigate flooding,” she says. “[It’s] about improving the water quality in the creek itself.”

Community concerns

Although many are excited about Dix Park’s upcoming transformation, nearby neighbors also have concerns.

“I am most concerned that the history of the land will be forgotten and hope the park will continue to incorporate the legacy of the land to provide healing and rest,” wrote one Raleigh resident, according to a community engagement report.

For about 150 years, the site was part of the Spring Hill Plantation, a 2,500-acre farm worked by Black slaves. It eventually became the site of North Carolina’s first mental health facility, Dorothea Dix Hospital. Now, many of the buildings serve as NC Department of Health and Human Services headquarters.

“Most great parks don’t have a million square feet of buildings, but that’s the history of this site,” Pearce says. “So … how can some of those buildings be reused and repurposed for public benefit and for park benefit?”

Raleigh residents are also worried that the renovation will change the character of the surrounding neighborhoods, which consist mostly of affordable, middle-class homes and commercial buildings. Gentrification and displacement were among some of the top concerns of nearby residents, prompting the city to commission the Dix Edge Area Study to examine possible solutions.

The money pouring into Dix Park and the surrounding area has already forced some to leave their homes as corporations buy property and raise rents.

“It’s not OK that people are displaced and pushed out so easily,” said Francisco Ceron-Sagastume earlier this year, after he had to leave his Fuller Heights rental home of two years. “All these developers are just buying out all these homes in magnitude.”

Dix Park is the center of a hub of new development, including a massive mixed-use development project from Kane Realty dubbed Downtown South. The developer plans to build new offices and retail space, apartment buildings, and hotels on about 130 acres of land around South Saunders Street and I-40. Kane announced plans for a 21-story apartment building and a 27-story office building earlier this year.

The Dix Park renovation is an ambitious undertaking and will likely significantly benefit the Raleigh community. The city has already moved its annual Fourth of July fireworks show to the park, and it’s the site of a new dog park and sunflower field. Dix Park is also one of the few places in Raleigh that offers a clear view of the sky. Amateur astronomers recently flocked to the park to see the Perseid meteor shower.

But the renovation will contribute to rising housing prices in the area, perhaps transforming one of the few affordable places left in Raleigh into a neighborhood exclusively for the rich.

Raleigh mayor Mary-Ann Baldwin says the city is working to ensure this won’t happen; the city recently purchased land near Dix Park specifically for affordable housing.

“The price of housing is going up throughout the city, and the way to combat that is to increase housing supply,” Baldwin says.

Meanwhile, families in Raleigh have a lot to look forward to. Pearce says the renovated Dix Park is designed to be a “destination park,” meaning people across the county can enjoy it.

“It is a park for the neighbors, but it’s also a park for the community at large. So people will drive to this park to enjoy it and probably stay a couple of hours. It’s as much a park for the larger Triangle region as it is for the people that live directly across the street.”

Construction of the Gipson Play Plaza is expected to start in September and last 24–27 months, Pearce says. The plaza is projected to open in 2024. 

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Follow Staff Writer Jasmine Gallup on Twitter or send an email to jgallup@indyweek.com.