Duke, Asheville cancel Rankin substation meeting; community demands greater transparency

ASHEVILLE - Hundreds of people were slated to descend on two community meetings on Aug. 11 in protest of a proposed Duke Energy substation on Rankin Avenue, according to Scott Fowler, spokesperson for Friends of Lexington Avenue.

The meetings were set for Aug. 11 and Aug. 22 to discuss a land swap between Duke and the city of Asheville, a proposal that Fowler said would threaten downtown businesses, devastate urban canopies, and create a "giant concrete canvas" on an iconic city street.

T-shirts were made, signs were designed and petitions signed.

But just two days before the planned rally, Duke and the city announced the cancellation of the community meetings.

"Suspending this phase of engagement allows for further consideration to address options and community input," said an Aug. 9 press release. "Once options have been further assessed, Duke Energy will evaluate additional opportunities for public input."

Jeff Brooks, a Duke spokesperson, told the Citizen Times that "no decisions have been made yet on next steps," meaning the land transfer is not off the table, though Brooks said the "exploration" of the swap has been purely "conceptual" to this point.

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"We have not yet entered an operational planning phase for the substation project, so timelines are not firm at this point," Brooks said.

The current substation, which sits at the rear of the Harrah's Cherokee Center at 72 Rankin Ave., is more than 60 years old. The release reiterates that the rebuild of the Rankin Avenue substation is "critical to power reliability in the area."

There are two ways forward, Brooks confirmed: rebuilding the aging Rankin Avenue substation on a city-owned parcel across the street from its current location, 57 Rankin Ave., or rebuilding where it is.

Locations of the existing substation on Rankin Avenue and the proposed location of the new substation.

"Those are the two options currently available to us, but we continue to work with the city to evaluate a variety of options and what makes best sense for both of our needs," Brooks said.

The substation's proximity to the civic center has long been a barrier to expansion of the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium.

However, the proposed parcel, which could be utilized if a land swap were approved by City Council, is a 0.6-acre, city-owned parking lot, backed by a steep wooded bank, lush with decades-old trees and vegetation.

In September 2021, Asheville City Council voted on an agreement for Duke to explore a land exchange to rebuild the existing substation across the street, and in return, grant the Duke-owned land next to the event center to the city.

Conceptual renderings of a retaining wall surrounding the proposed location for the Rankin Avenue substation.

A potential rendering of the new substation, presented at a July 21 Design Review Committee and severely critiqued, showed project plans that would eliminate the parcel's trees, which in places form a shaded bower over the Lexington Avenue businesses below.

Mayor Esther Manheimer told the Citizen Times Aug. 10 that City Council has asked that city staff continue to work with Duke on "all possible solutions" to address the immediate need.

"We understand that reliable, safe power is critical to our city, and balancing that need with the aesthetic and safety concerns of the community requires more time, attention and study before considering additional solutions to the substation’s replacement," Manheimer said.

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'A ripple effect'

Rankin Avenue business owner Claire Watson said when she first heard of the meeting's cancellation, she thought the area business owners had gotten through to Duke.

But as messaging spread, she said, "Now, I'm thinking they just didn't want to see how many of us there were."

Watson is co-owner of Moonlight Makers on Rankin Avenue, a few blocks down from both the substation and its proposed new location.

She had been among those going to the meetings and helping others mobilize, and her whole staff had planned to attend.

When she first heard about the potential land swap, she thought it would never go through — but as the months ticked on, the plans just went "further and further."

“It’s like they have no concept that it would effect anyone. Like all those businesses on Lexington looking up ... I’m not sure they would even make it if that design went through,” Watson said.

“I really think it’s taking Asheville in the wrong direction."

Watson fears a "ripple effect" if plans moved forward, with businesses shutting down if vital neighborhood character is lost and a new substation looms over the block.

In an Aug. 10 news release, in the wake of the meeting cancellations, Friends of Lexington Avenue, which bills itself as a "group of concerned Asheville downtown business owners, residents, advocates, neighbors and friends" who want to ensure the land swap does not move forward, called for the city and Duke to hold public meetings on the proposed project.

It said since the entities signed its MOU, there has been no community forum scheduled where residents could meet with the city and Duke to discuss the project.

“Before Duke Energy goes back to the drawing board to evaluate additional opportunities for our downtown community, it is crucial to have collaborative and productive discussions between Duke, the City and the citizens of Asheville. This has happened on past substation projects. There’s been a lack of transparency throughout the process to date and no effort on behalf of the City or Duke to engage the community through an open public forum,” Fowler said in the release.

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What next?

Brooks said pausing public engagement will allow Duke to evaluate the feedback it has received.

He said for this project, Duke has given opportunities to provide feedback online, by phone and in-person.

"We’ve really worked hard to solicit public input to this point and all of that will considered as part of our project evaluation," Brooks said. "We continue to welcome community input."

According to Brooks, Duke has received a dozen or so emails and calls in addition to in-person meetings and outreach.

Fowler said Friends of Lexington's outreach did not focus on registering with Duke, rather it had rallies planned for Harrah's Cherokee Center and in front of the Vanderbilt apartments.

Brooks said Duke will work with the city to evaluate options.

"We will continue to provide community information as we move forward and appreciate community feedback we have received and will continue to receive," Brooks said.

Sarah Honosky is the city government reporter for the Asheville Citizen Times, part of the USA TODAY Network. News Tips? Email shonosky@citizentimes.com or message on Twitter at @slhonosky. 

This article originally appeared on Asheville Citizen Times: Duke, Asheville cancel controversial substation meetings. Now what?