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Local leaders in Raleigh want to transform a former state psychiatric hospital campus into their own “Central Park." But a deal has been hard to reach.
Last week, GovExec State & Local was in North Carolina checking out a few stories in the Raleigh-Durham area. Here’s our report on Wake County’s big transit planning meeting, our field trip to Durham’s infamous 11-foot-8 bridge, our feature on Cary’s new Aquastar water metering system and a primer on North Carolina’s “elevator lady.” Here’s is our last dispatch, until our next trip to the Tar Heel State ...
RALEIGH, N.C. — Some of the best views of the skyline of North Carolina’s capital city are found just to the southwest of the downtown area on more than 300 acres of state-controlled land adjacent to Central Prison, which houses prisoners on death row.
In warmer, drier weather, it’s a great place to walk or ride a bicycle and take in the rolling natural landscape with the downtown skyline framed by gaps in the trees at different points along the ridge line.
On a rainy and dreary visit last week, this sprawling place felt somewhat more spooky, befitting that it’s the home of the former Dorothea Dix psychiatric hospital campus, which includes a cemetery and a lot of ghost stories from its more than 150 years of history.
Much of the campus, which is controlled by the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, has been decommissioned. Portions of it were transferred previously to other state entities, including North Carolina State University, which created its Centennial Campus on former agricultural land that supported the hospital.
As the state made its moves to decommission the hospital complex—the last psychiatric patients left the Dix campus in 2012—community leaders and city officials in Raleigh envisioned a giant “Central Park” on the Dix property and have been pressing the state to transfer the land to the city.
Proponents of the land transfer argue that their plan is an opportunity to create a world-class park adjacent to downtown that will boost the profile of North Carolina’s capital.
But negotiations have been slow going.
A leasing agreement between the city of Raleigh and the state was inked just as Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue was leaving office after the 2012 elections. After Republicans took control governor’s mansion, lawmakers in the GOP-controlled legislature moved to scrap Perdue’s agreement with Raleigh leaders and the state and city went back to the drawing board to reassess a potential land transfer deal.
This spring, Gov. Pat McCrory rejected an offer from the city to purchase the Dix campus and came back with a more expensive counteroffer that would have the state keep part of the property while allowing the city to create its long-envisioned central park.
Back in August, a new agreement seemed to be within reach. “I think we’re going to be reaching a deal very soon,” Raleigh Mayor Nancy McFarlane said, according to the News & Observer.
But that “very soon” didn’t come with a specific timeline.
A view of the Raleigh skyline from the former Dorothea Dix psychiatric hospital campus (Photo by Flickr user Suzie Tremmel via CC BY 2.0)
As WRAL-TV’s @NCCapitol reported last week, after two years of negotiations, the future of the Dorothea Dix campus is still uncertain but the governor and mayor seem optimistic that an agreement could be hammered out by the end of the month.
There are some remaining sticking points with the most recent proposal, including environmental remediation and the state’s need to retain some office space for the state’s Department of Health and Human Services, the television station reported.
The city's Nov. 20 offer at least partially tackles those two issues. City officials agree to accept, with certain conditions, responsibility for environmental problems on the property, with the exception of what might arise as a result of the old landfill area. The city also agreed to a state request to lease back parts of the property, including a 27.5-acre portion of the campus currently occupied by DHHS offices. However, the city wants that lease to be for 25 years, not the more open-ended lease sought by the state.
Disputes over intergovermental land transfers or governments selling off land they control are nothing new.
In the nation’s capital, the transfer of federal land to local control can often take years to negotiate and push through the legislative process. The District of Columbia government last week officially assumed control of part of the former Walter Reed Army Medical Center campus, which local officials plan to transform into a mixed-use development called the Parks at Walter Reed.
In Louisiana, consultants working for the administration of Gov. Bobby Jindal, have recently recommended selling off various state-controlled property and assets, including lakefront property in New Orleans that’s currently under the jurisdiction of the state’s Transportation Department.
"Are they going to sell it to anybody so they can put anything on the lakefront?" said state Sen. Ed Murray, according to The Times-Picayune. "I think the local delegation might want to tell the public that is being considered to be sold."