Dorothea Dix arial view

Dorothea Dix Hospital: center building reuse study

2017 Stuart Chapin Award for best Master’s project in area of land use and environmental planning

Chase Nicholas

While rehabilitation of historic sites may differ in scale, finances, ownership, or use, its preservation and adaptation requires careful planning and coordination. This study examines the complex factors surrounding reuse projects through an analysis of Dix Park, whose Center Building is to undergo a reuse transformation of its own.

Designed by A.J. Davis and built in 1856, the Dorothea Dix Hospital consists of an asylum design, including a central building and two wings. Numerous alterations and additions were incorporated: in 1951, the central pavilion was removed and replaced with the McBryde Building, with the Hargrove surgery building following it in 1975. Amidst the addition of various extensions and support facilities, however, the Center Building’s original design still lays intact, and now waits for rehabilitation efforts to begin. In the case of Dix Park, its location proximate to downtown Raleigh offers itself as a tool for increasing growth in the area. This growth, encompassing cultural, technological, and tourism development, would spur subsequent economic changes. Furthermore, any plans for reuse must reflect sensitivity and respect to the site’s original purpose.

Three case studies serve as examples of varied reuse models. The Commons at Grand Traverse (Traverse City, Michigan) with 300,000 square feet of space transformed for condo, retail, office, and restaurant use. The Richardson Olmsted Complex (Buffalo, New York) adopted a Master Plan whose core vision sought to rehabilitate the hospital complex to serve as a mixed-use, multi-purpose civic campus. The Presidio (San Francisco, California), which originated as a military base, became a National Park, an urban park, and a mixed-use development. In all three cases, reuse options varied and were determined considering the site’s physical context and feasibility. Partnership choices for development also varied, of which included private master developers (The Commons), public agency master developers (The Presidio), and statutory corporations as master developers (Richardson Olmsted Complex). These partnerships determined the amount of financial flexibility each project allowed.

Beyond these differences, similarities in the sites’ approaches offer three key lessons pertaining to rehabilitation. First, in terms of general planning, a phased approach proved to be important as a strategy for mitigating possible risks and adapting to changing market conditions. Secondly, for the sites themselves, a central focal point was established in order to serve as a core area and a gateway for visitors. Often, this focal point functioned as an image or symbol of the site, and made for a lasting overall impression. Lastly, the retention of the sites’ historical architecture was especially imperative, as its value as a historical legacy was an asset when applied to rehabilitation investment, tax credit financing, and preservation efforts.

Nicholas proposes a potential model for Dix Park after taking into account information gleaned from the above cases. One option includes following the Presidio with the use of a statutory corporation as a master developer and a “Dix Hill Trust.” Nicholas also structures possible costs and financial estimates for demolition of the McBryde and Surgery buildings and incorporates a mixed-use development plan that serves to reduce potential risks, promote both daytime and evening activity, and demonstrate a mix of public access and revenue generating use (civic/institutional, hospitality, event, and office uses). Four important recommendations for planning Dix Park’s rehabilitation are also provided: collaborating with NCSHPO and NPS (revising to include historic portions of the Center Building) for tax credit equity purposes, having robust, open, participatory planning for Dix Park’s real estate, considering the creation of a trust to develop and manage assets, and deciding on a mixed-use strategy for the Center Building as an opportunity to present the coexistence of public and private uses.

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