Connecting state and local government leaders
City leaders have an agreement to buy a giant piece of state land to create their own grand central park. But new legislation may pit municipal leaders against the highest bidder.
Late last week, an unusual Craigslist ad appeared in Raleigh-area “for sale” listings regarding a large expanse of state-owned land near downtown that the municipal government has been carefully negotiating to purchase to create a grand central park for North Carolina’s capital city:
We, the State of North Carolina, have decided to put the Dorothea Dix property up for sale to the highest bidder. We don't believe in the competence of the City of Raleigh to successfully do anything of substantial quality with this property. Despite the fact that our governor has inked a deal with the City of Raleigh's Mayor Nancy McFarlane, we believe that guy is incompetent himself and have taken matters into our own hands to get a [expletive] load of money out of this property and then use it to buy lots of useless [expletive] that our state won't use in the way the City of Raleigh would truly use this property for the good of its citizens. But, who cares about citizens and public space, right?
The cost? $52,000,001 or better offer—“like a much much much much better offer,” according to the ad.
The Craigslist ad was, naturally, a spoof. But the sentiments behind it are certainly real.
It’s the latest flashpoint in the sometimes contentious relationship that exists between North Carolina’s Republican-controlled state government and local governments, especially those in urbanized areas of the state.
Last week, three Republican state lawmakers introduced S.B. 705, legislation that would put the land up for sale with the Dix property, which sits on more than 300 acres of land that offers great views of the downtown skyline, going to the highest bidder.
If the bill is approved, the bidding would start at $52 million, the price that the city of Raleigh had previously agreed to purchase the Dix property for.
“I just believe that the property is worth more than we’re being offered,” [State Sen. Tommy] Tucker said. “It’s a big piece of property in the middle of a metropolitan city.”
He said the state will likely spend $100 million to build a new headquarters for the Department of Health and Human Services, which currently occupies part of the Dix site.
“We’ve got to build an office and parking deck for 2,000 people,” he said. “We need to get the most value we can.”
Raleigh would be refunded any money it has already paid for the original lease, but the city would likely have to compete with any private sector bidders on the property. The bill would require proceeds from the sale to be used for mental health programs.
The land is currently under the jurisdiction of the Department of Health and Human Services, which housed psychiatric patients on a hospital campus there until 2012. The Dorothea Dix property, named for the 19th century social reformer and asylum advocate, had been used as a psychiatric hospital since the 1850s.
Over the years, parts of the property have been decommissioned, including a large section that is now part of North Carolina State University’s Centennial Campus. While the remainder of the property is still used by some state employees, much of it is used as a de facto park by locals. It’s great for walks, bicycling, dog-walking and ghost hunting.
The proposed central park on the Dix property would be adjacent to Raleigh’s booming downtown and nearby revitalizing neighborhoods near the city’s Union Station, which is slated for redevelopment as a regional and local transportation hub.
Negotiations between the Raleigh City Hall and the state government over the Dix property have been going on since Gov. Bev Perdue’s administration, when the Democratic governor finalized a leasing agreement with the city in the final weeks of her tenure.
But as Raleigh leaders have learned in recent years, nothing has been final with the Dix campus deal, even when compromises are seemingly in place or within reach.
When Republicans took total control of state government after the 2012 elections, lawmakers made moves to block Perdue’s agreement to reassess the deal.
An autumnal view of downtown Raleigh from the state of North Carolina's Dorothea Dix property. (Image by Flickr user Suzie Tremmel via CC BY 2.0)
Negotiations went back to square one. Last spring, Gov. Pat McCrory rejected another offer from the city. Last August, another deal seemed to be close. But it wasn’t until January when Raleigh Mayor Nancy McFarlane and the governor announced that they had reached a tentative deal over property.
Raleigh would pay $52 million for the state land. That deal has not yet been finalized.
If the new legislation is passed, Raleigh would likely have to pay more than the $52 million it has already agreed to pay to create the city’s long sought after destination park.
If a private developer outbids the city under the proposed plan, then the destination park the city wants could end up looking very different.
“It’s upsetting that they’re bypassing the normal process by which the state disposes of property and trying to undo a deal that the governor and a whole lot of stakeholders worked really hard to come to,” Rep. Grier Martin, a Democrat from Raleigh, told the News & Observer last week.
It also “shows a complete lack of respect for McCrory’s office, for his authority and for, as Wake County Democratic Sen. Josh Stein says, a ‘valid contract’ between the state and the city,” the newspaper’s editorial board wrote in a Sunday editorial.