On the Continuing Dix Park Saga

“Monday Musings” for Monday September 8, 2014

Volume IV, No, 35/135

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DIX PARK, NORTH CAROLINA’S CENTRAL PARK

By Assad Meymandi, MD, PhD, DLFAPA*

 

The Dorothea Dix Hospital property is back in the news. The city of Raleigh and state of North Carolina are currently renegotiating the sale of the property and the mayor of Raleigh has expressed optimism about a soon to reach agreement. We hope that the 303 acres of beautiful land in the center of Raleigh will be turned into a destination park, like the Central Park in New York.

There is an elegantly written, exhaustively researched and exquisitely prepared five volume set by architect-academician-historian-entrepreneur Robert A. M. Stern, founder, senior partner and owner of a large architectural firm in NY, that should be a part of every library. Mr. Stern is Dean of Yale  School of Architecture. In this ambitious set, he has taken a historical scalpel and dissected every building of every borough of NY, with exhaustive reverence for detail and accuracy.

I just want to share what he says about the NY Central Park: “New York has things that no other city in the US has, at least not in the same way.  Fredrick Law Olmstead built in many places, but his central Park is incomparable…”

Here in Raleigh, we have a once not only in a life time but in a millennium opportunity to create a Central Park for the benefit of the entire state of North Carolina.  Yet it seems that after ten years of talking, “studying,” politically pontificating and maneuvering.  We have the land.  We have the location.  We have the vision. And now we have the political will to make the Park happen.  Raleigh deserves a Park similar to New York’s Central Park.

Dorothea Dix Hospital established in mid-19th century was dedicated to the care of mentally ill in the middle of the nineteen century as the result of compassionate community organizer, Dorothea Lynn Dix. After more than 150 years of service, taking care of thousands of patients, it closed in 2010. My family and I have emotional ties to the beautiful piece of land which is not but a few blocks from the downtown business district. I received my psychiatric residency training at Dix and my family lived on the grounds of the hospital in a small brick house 1001 Stancil Drive. In 2004, a News & Observer (N&O) reporter went on a ride with me on a tour of the ground of DDH. I suggested that a city park would be an appropriate use of the land, The idea of a “Park” began blooming, and many dedicated citizens formed the Dix Visionaries and pursued the matter to its present stage of imminence. We are excited!  Please see below, a transcript of the article from April 13, 2005 which was preceded by a lead N&O editorial supporting the proposal on the morning of April 21, 2004.  The idea and the proposal were conceived more than ten years ago. It is hoped that the state and city of Raleigh will consummate a deal and make Dix Park

 

By Richard Stradling, Staff Writer

April 13, 2005, Raleigh News & Observer

RALEIGH — A philanthropist who helped build an orchestra hall in downtown Raleigh has offered to back another project designed to improve the city’s artistic and spiritual life: turning the Dorothea Dix Hospital campus into a public park.

Assad Meymandi has pledged to donate $1 million toward remaking the 300-acre campus overlooking downtown into a city park.

Meymandi, whose love of classical music inspired him to donate $2 million toward the hall at the BTI Center for the Performing Arts that bears his family’s name, said he has a similar fondness for the shaded hills and historic buildings at Dix.

“To me, it’s holy land,” said Meymandi, a Raleigh psychiatrist who lived on the Dix campus during his training years in the 1960s. “We need to preserve it for our children.”

Meymandi’s offer feeds the hopes of a fledgling coalition of groups and individuals who would like to see Dix become a park after the state closes the mental hospital in 2007.

Janis Ramquist, a Raleigh lobbyist and one of the coalition’s leaders, says that environmental, neighborhood and historic preservation groups are just beginning to consider how to raise the tens of millions of dollars probably needed to buy the land and turn it into a park. Meymandi’s pledge is a good start, Ramquist said. “It makes me work harder,” she said.

The state Department of Health and Human Services has not decided what to do with the property. Even after the hospital closes, the department will have more than 1,100 workers in office buildings on the campus.

But some state officials have said that the state should sell the land to private developers. Advocates for the mentally ill and some legislators say they would like to see income from a sale used to provide mental health services.

Anticipating the pressure to sell, a legislative commission recommended last month that the General Assembly help pay for a  Dix redevelopment plan that reflects the wishes of the state, the city and surrounding neighborhoods. The commission, which included Raleigh Mayor Charles Meeker and five Wake County legislators, hopes the plan can be completed by next spring.

Rep. Jennifer Weiss, a commission member from Cary, called the effort to make Dix a park “very ambitious and visionary” but said she hopes the land can generate a significant amount of money to help the mentally ill. “If there’s a way to save that land and also to fund mental health, I would certainly be very supportive of that,” Weiss said.

Park proponents say they’re optimistic that they can raise as much money as the state could get selling the land for development. Mary Jane Clark, a Democratic party activist and friend of Meymandi’s, said she has heard estimates of $45 million to $80 million. “There are all kinds of ways to put together the money,” Clark said. “We’re not asking that it be given to us.”

Meymandi, 67, hopes his pledge will inspire others to make large donations. He’d also like to see schoolchildren and community groups get involved in raising money, so that the park becomes a region wide accomplishment.

Meymandi, a native of Iran who arrived in the United States in 1955, calls himself a “card-carrying conservative Republican.” He keeps a framed photo of George and Laura Bush on his office desk, a thank-you for his financial support to the president, and says he is thankful for the opportunities this country has given him. He built his fortune through his psychiatric practice and investments. But Meymandi says he’s a “tree-hugger” when it comes to the giant oaks that line the narrow drives at Dix. He thinks Dix could be Raleigh’s version of New York’s Central Park, with fountains, flowers, playgrounds and shuffleboard. He says the hospital’s best old buildings, including 19th-century patient wards, can be preserved and put to some civic use.

From behind the wheel of his Cadillac DeVille, Meymandi gives a tour of Dix as if it were his hometown. He shows off his favorite view of the Raleigh skyline and names the families who used to live in the modest brick houses once reserved for doctors.

Meymandi’s three sons were born while he and his late wife, Patricia, lived in one of the houses. The day in 1965 that she gave birth to their middle son, Eric, Patricia planted a germinating walnut in the back yard. The sapling the family dubbed “Eric tree” now towers over the house, which has been converted into offices. By working to make Dix a park, Meymandi hopes to save all the big trees, especially this one. “This is not an intellectual inclination,” he said. “This is a passion that reaches down to my family.”

Copyright 2005 by The News & Observer Pub. Co.

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*The writer is Adjunct Professor of Psychiatry, University of North Carolina School of Medicine at Chapel Hill, Distinguished Life fellow American Psychiatric Association, and Founding Editor and Editor-in-Chief, Wake County Physician Magazine (1995-2012). He serves as a Visiting Scholar and lecturer on Medicine, the Arts and Humanities at his alma mater the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health.

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