FIELD OF DREAMS: Envisioning Raleigh’s Central Park


If they build it…
With the Raleigh skyline behind them, Jay Spain, Greg Poole and
Bill Padgett imagine the possibilities at Dix Hill.

by Amber Nimocks

photographs by Missy McLamb

The grass is thick beneath your palms and bare feet as you recline atop Dix Hill, watching the liquid glow of the sunset reflected in the glass walls of downtown Raleigh. You’re tired in the pleasant way that follows a day spent wandering the halls of a museum, or learning solely for the pleasure of it.

At the bottom of the hill, a steady stream of bicyclists, runners, and walkers moves along a greenway that parallels the winding path of Rocky Branch Creek. The cacophony of an orchestra tuning up floats from an amphitheater far behind you. An electric train glides to a stop at a platform, and the audience headed to the symphony performance spills out. As you slip your walking shoes back on and prepare to head for the departing train, you turn to take a last look at the place where you spent your afternoon. Is it a history museum? A warehouse of studios where you watched artists and craftsmen at work? An interactive funhouse of technology where you experimented with the newest developments in product design and engineering?

The future could hold any of these scenarios for the park that will come to inhabit the Dorothea Dix Hospital property – or none of them. At this point, nothing is set. But if a lease signed last December is allowed to stand, these hills, fields, and trees, where North Carolinians have found respite for generations, will continue to welcome all who wish to enter.

Former Gov. Bev Perdue sought to secure the property’s course for the next century when she signed a 99-year lease that lets Raleigh pay the state $500,000 a year for its use. Volunteers who spent almost a decade planting yard signs, writing elected officials and talking up the park plan with friends and strangers celebrated victory. Their euphoria was subdued by a Senate bill filed in March that seeks to undo the lease and offer a smaller portion of the Dix property for the park.

Three groups led the park campaign: the Friends of Dorothea Dix Park, Dix 306 and the Dix Visionaries. Two powerful ideas bound them together and fueled their disparate efforts: A fixation with the number 306 – that’s how many acres were in consideration, and the backers of the park plan were willing to concede not a single one – and a keen understanding that turning Dix into a destination park could shape Raleigh’s future well into the next century.

As a city, Raleigh longs to join the major leagues, for its name to be mentioned in the same breath as Chicago, St. Louis, Atlanta, maybe even New York. It has a lot going for it – well-managed growth, a highly educated population, industry, universities, the arts. There are plenty of places to take visitors: the N.C. Museum of Art, downtown, Pullen Park. But it lacks a signature place, a place where you can go and soak up the essence of Raleigh itself. The park that may emerge at Dix could be that place.

The fact that a tract of land this green, this lush, and this large has been preserved from commercial development mere blocks from the urban center of a rapidly growing city makes it invaluable, proponents say.


URBAN OASIS Many local residents already enjoy the open spaces of Dix Hill, a favorite destination for dog walkers and runners.

When the state announced in 2010 that it planned to close Dorothea Dix Hospital, which had been the state psychiatric treatment facility since 1856, everyone who had a stake in the property started digging in. Many state lawmakers focused on the millions of dollars the state could collect from a sale. Supporters of the state’s mental health system called dibs on the proceeds of any sale to support that system. The legislature commissioned studies that supported splitting the land up, making the larger portion available for development. And while many influential developers supported the park, there’s no doubt builders would have come forth had the land been put up for sale. So many varying interests, each with powerful players, amounted to a hydra-headed opponent for backers of the park. A single fact, repeated often during the debate, focused their efforts.

“If you look at major cities across the United States, I do not know of any major city that has 300 acres or so sitting next to its downtown that can be used as a major destination park,” says Bill Padgett, head of Dix 306.

The timing is good, too. The conversion of Dix from a mental health institute into a public space would occur along with a downtown renaissance, a surge of activity at next-door neighbor N.C. State University, and predictions of unprecedented growth of the metro area. It helps to be born at the right time.

But supporters of Dix park know – as anyone does who has borne a child – that while labor is painful, it’s a cakewalk compared to raising that child. The harder part will be setting a course for the future of Dix, and seeing it through.

If all goes well, it would be up to the city to develop a master plan for the park, a process expected to take about two years. Developing the plan and the park will most likely involve some sort of public-private partnership; members of Dix 306, Friends of Dorothea Dix, and Dix Visionaries will work to be a part of that.

“Parks have lives of their own,” Padgett says. “Sometimes they have rough times. We hope this one is going to start on a high note.”

Dorthea Dix StoryThe powerful enthusiast 

Greg Poole didn’t set out to lead a campaign to save Dix from development. He just happened to switch his truck’s radio from music to news one day while riding around. WPTF aired a short piece that perked up his ears. A land-use group commissioned by the state legislature to develop a plan for the Dorothea Dix property was presenting that plan at the civic center that night. He called his wife to make sure his calendar for the evening was clear. It was.

“I says, ‘Well, save my dinner. I’m going to this hearing,’ ” recalls Poole, 78, a lifelong Raleigh resident who was born in the old Rex Hospital downtown.

Land development is in his blood. His father built the foundation for what is today a multimillion-dollar construction and heavy machinery business, Gregory Poole Equipment Co., in part by acquiring property a little bit at a time. Poole’s father developed Cary’s MacGregor Downs, and Poole developed Lochmere. When Greg was young, he would accompany his dad on walks around the tracts he’d bought, listening as his father pointed out a natural spot for a pond, musing about the land’s future.

“I love land development,” Poole says. “I like to believe I really know how to use a piece of land and what it wants to be.”

He knew after listening to the land-use group’s presentation that night that Dix did not need to be residential and retail space, as their plan suggested. After the presentation, those in attendance gathered in groups of six or eight to consider the proposal and brainstorm their responses. Poole’s group asked him to deliver their thoughts to the larger group. It was a firm thumbs down.

“It did not seem like a very responsible use of the land.”

Poole is a tall man with large, graceful, manicured hands and a gentle tan that testifies to a winter spent in the Florida Keys. His wears his success comfortably, and has a knack for making people feel at ease. And while he speaks casually about growing his company, when he starts talking about the future of Dix, he has a storefront preacher’s passion.

A bit of inspiration for the Dix plan came when he was recovering from heart surgery. As a driven businessman, Poole devoted scant time to reading for pleasure. But after his operation, he had to take a break. Doctor’s orders. A friend gave his wife a book for him to read, The Devil in the White City. It’s the true story of the building of the massive fairgrounds for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, detailing the political and physical struggles its architect faced. The book powerfully captures an era of revolutionary growth and transformation in what became one of the greatest cities in America. Poole believes Raleigh is in the midst of a similar era, and the times called for leaders who see possibilities that could alter the city’s course.

After he realized he couldn’t sit by and let Dix become another condominium complex, Poole formed Dix Visionaries. He talked with civic groups, he talked with friends and acquaintances. And Poole’s friends and acquaintances are the kind of people it’s good to know: Jim Goodmon of Capitol Broadcasting, Ann Goodnight of SAS, and Robert Ingram, formerly of GlaxoSmithKline. After Poole had been at it for about a year, he got a call from former Gov. Jim Hunt, who apologized for waiting so long to get in touch. Hunt told him he had wanted the Dix land to go to N.C. State. He’d changed his mind, thanks in part to Poole.

Poole’s leadership continues. In February, he held a lunch meeting for the Dix Visionaries at the Umstead Hotel. John Hoal, a professor of landscape architecture who helped design improvements for St. Louis’ Forest Park, talked about possibilities for Dix’s future.

Dorthea Dix StoryThe lifelong activist 

The setting was less elegant when members of Dix 306 and Friends of Dorothea Dix met a few nights earlier to discuss the park’s future, gathered in a corner booth at the landmark sports bar and restaurant Players’ Retreat on Hillsborough Street. The light was dim, and folks kept leaning in to hear one another over the low roar of the Wednesday-night spaghetti special dinner crowd. Attendees shared a basket of hand-cut potato chips while they slowly emptied pints of beer and glasses of sweet tea.

Bill Padgett attended both the Umstead meeting and the one at the PR. He’s head of Dix 306, and involved with the Friends of Dorothea Dix. Dix 306 came about when the battle began heating up, and the campaign needed a more politically active arm. To steer clear of any tax complications, Dix 306 formed as a 501(c)4. They met at Padgett’s house, where they organized the efforts that dotted the city’s front lawns with “Dix 306” signs.

“We made it a little bit more visible as to what the citizens wanted for the future of that land,” Padgett says.

A veteran civic activist, Padgett, 68, talks about land-use battles the way some men talk about college basketball – recounting key wins and losses, remembering what strategies worked and when. Keeping neighborhoods from being overrun by development and preserving landmarks is his pastime. His service as a board member or leader includes his neighborhood Citizens Advisory Council, the North Carolina League of Conservation Voters and Trees Across Raleigh. Padgett has worked on campaigns to block inside the Beltline developments, to move the Cape Hatteras lighthouse, to preserve Bird Island, and to restore the Bodie Island lighthouse.

Dix 306 was not Padgett’s first turn around the land-use debate block. But it may have been his most satisfying. His visions of the possibilities for the land seem limitless, and he knows the work of the next 10 years is as critical to the park’s success as the effort of the past decade. There’s no reason to rush the planning now.

“You’ve got a lot of time to think about how you want this land to evolve,” he says. “You can get political pretty quickly … Hopefully everyone will be willing to compromise.”

He has more questions than answers: How will the park use the resources of its neighbors, N.C. State’s Centennial campus, and downtown Raleigh? How will businesses be involved? Could Dix lure a Smithsonian annex? What about showcasing N.C. State’s cutting-edge efforts in design and engineering program with models and demonstrations? Could a botanical garden fit into the plan?

“I say go back to 1850 and shut your eyes,” Padgett says. “No electricity, no lights. Now try to imagine what Central Park would be … We’ve got that same kind of challenge.”

Padgett’s mind wanders farther back than the 19th century and then into the future. Consider how long it took society to move from the hunter-gatherer era to the age of agriculture, then think about how rapidly we traded that agrarian society for a world dominated by manufacturing and then moved on to the age of technology.

“Things are moving so fast,” Padgett says. “That’s what I think is exciting about this piece of land.”

The plan for Dix needs to anticipate a world altered in ways at which we can only guess. Put in that perspective, the questions for those mapping its future are staggering. After years spent chasing the car, is the dog up to the challenge of figuring out what to do with it?

“We’ve caught cars before,” Padgett says with a laugh. “We’ll do OK. Maybe we caught the truck this time.”

Dorthea Dix StoryThe organized idealist 

Jay Spain makes films, most of them promotional or instructional videos for groups or corporations. It’s pretty steady work that pays the bills. But commercial and corporate contracts don’t necessarily feed the soul.

“You’re really not doing anything that’s going to change the human condition, and that’s what I’m interested in,” Spain says.

Documentary films help him scratch that itch. Spain served as producer and director of photography for Moving Midway, Raleigh-born director Godfrey Cheshire’s exploration of race and family history centered on the move of his ancestral home. Spain, 55, also directed and produced Live and Let Go: An American Death, which chronicled a feisty terminal cancer patient’s quest for an empowered ending to his own life. Both received wide acclaim. Those are the projects he most proudly calls his own. He lists his work with the Friends of Dorothea Dix alongside them.

“Dix Park is one of my children. Moving Midway is one of my children, Live and Let Go is one of my children,” he says.

The magnetic force that Dix seems to exert pulled Spain in after he participated in a city planning group considering the needs of the area west of Boylan Heights. He lived nearby and also owned property there.

“Dix was a natural extension of my involvement with that,” he says. “My neighborhood, my city, my state.”

That taste of community participation whetted his appetite, and he attended some of the presentations where commercial development of Dix was being discussed. He and Greg Poole were in the same meeting that evening at the convention center.

“I presented for my group, he presented for his,” Spain says.

His interest in the Dix campaign morphed into a dedication to the cause, and Spain found himself leading the Friends organization.

Like Poole, Spain was born in Rex Hospital, though the hospital had moved from downtown when Spain arrived. He attended Broughton High School, then N.C. State, and got one of his first jobs as a lighting director and cameraman at Carolina Power & Light.

Spain grew up in a very conservative household where Jesse Helms was a hero. Today he describes himself as socially liberal and fiscally conservative, an Independent. The evolution of his political views gives him a window in the thinking of those who were on the other side of the Dix question, he says. He views his role in the fight for Dix as one of educator as he does his documentary work.

“It’s teaching one way or another, through small points or large points,” Spain says. He tried to avoid preaching to the choir and worked to open minds on both sides.

“It’s trying to see the other side, but letting them see that their side wins, too, by accepting my side,” he said. “I really believe that. The other side is going to win, too.”

Like social reformer Dorothea Dix, whose efforts created the hospital for the mentally ill that bore her name, he believes the patch of land should be a place for people to find solace with green trees all around and the sky above. As for how to work out the specifics, he knows that keeping communication going between all interested parties will be key.

“It’s really up to us, and the people of North Carolina to say, ‘This is what we want,’ ” Spain says. “We’ve shown our voices can be heard if we speak loudly enough.”