BY SUSAN RICH AND ANNE STRAUSS
Our late father, landscape architect John Lantzius, was well-known for his determined efforts in his hometown of Asheville, starting in the 1970s, to preserve and renew Lexington Avenue. As longtime and frequent visitors to Asheville — since the 1950s, in fact — we share the passion he had to create a home for local, independent businesses, and a pleasant place for people to live, visit and enjoy.
When plans surfaced recently that threatened that vision, we felt we needed to speak out. But first, a bit of history.
The downtown mall
The remarkable trove of historic architecture in downtown Asheville survives mainly due to past economic hard times. Following the Great Depression, growth downtown was stymied by massive debt, and Asheville’s downtown became a 1920s architectural time capsule. Like many American cities, Asheville’s downtown of the 1970s had reached another low point when the city government saw a solution: Demolish 11 square blocks of a downtown area it considered “blighted” and build a huge new mall.
Had the project moved forward, residents and businesses would have been forced to relocate, and historic properties such as the Center for Craft building on Broadway would have been torn down. Much of Asheville’s downtown architectural heritage, including North Lexington Avenue, would have been lost.
But a group of determined Asheville residents rose up to save, protect and reinvigorate this large section of downtown in an ultimately successful effort to defeat the mall. As a result, today Asheville’s residents and its many visitors can enjoy the graceful and unique architecture of the downtown area, and Lexington Avenue in particular, with its charming, historic brick buildings and brick sidewalks — an area vibrant with restaurants and independent, locally owned businesses.
Lexington Avenue is further enriched today by a large urban forest, shady courtyards and mature street trees that were hand planted by our father. The story is celebrated in the “Lexington Life Column” sculpture by artist Béatrice Coron, commissioned by the Asheville Downtown Association Foundation in 2018, that stands on Lexington Avenue.
A new threat
Sadly, Lexington Avenue and its businesses and residents face a new threat. The city of Asheville and Duke Energy entered into a memorandum of understanding last September for a proposed land swap at 57 Rankin Ave. that will allow Duke to build a giant new electrical substation, which will engulf a remarkable tract of mature urban forest that reaches from Lexington Avenue to Rankin Avenue and eliminate 48 affordable city parking spaces. The substation will include a huge retaining wall, transformers, towers and high-tension wires, entirely out of scale with the surroundings. What may have initially made sense on a map fails completely in reality.
The trees at stake, some with trunks 2 feet or more in diameter, form an expansive canopy visible from many vantage points and are an integral part of the Lexington Avenue neighborhood. They also provide active cooling, an additional role that urban forests play in cities. An ad hoc committee of the Asheville Downtown Commission completed a survey in 2019, in which most respondents were Asheville residents and 95% were residents from Buncombe County. Trees and shade were identified out of 20 options as the most popular, highest contributor to a positive downtown experience. The survey notes the public benefit of trees: Increased tree canopy decreases the heat-island effect and supports Asheville’s climate resilience plan, helps enhance Asheville’s character and creates places to be and enjoy.
The proposal moves the substation to an elevated position, where it would loom over Lexington Avenue and its businesses. The overall impact is significant and would no doubt be catastrophic for the community. Small-business owners, 60 in all, in this retail and restaurant corridor will face economic challenges at a time when they are still reeling from the pandemic and unstable economic conditions.
A better option
Leaving the Duke substation at its current location is by far the best available option. Duke Energy spokesman Jason Walls disclosed at a recent meeting with Friends of Lexington Avenue coalition members — a meeting that was attended by Mayor Esther Manheimer and two City Council members — that the Duke substation in its current location can be expanded as needed to accommodate future power demands required for downtown Asheville.
By Duke Energy leaving the substation in its present location, Duke Energy and the city of Asheville will avoid harming downtown residential views, impairing trade and commerce on Lexington Avenue, significantly reducing property values of adjacent properties and removing one of downtown Asheville’s largest urban tree canopies.
We can look back today and sigh with relief that the mall that nearly consumed a large portion of downtown Asheville was avoided due to the determined effort of some farsighted Asheville business owners and residents. More than 40 years later, we are rising to a different challenge, working hard to save one of Asheville’s most historic and vibrant cultural, commercial and residential communities as well as one of downtown’s largest urban tree canopies.
The Friends of Lexington Avenue understand what is at stake and are advocating for the future of the Lexington Avenue community and all the people who live, work and visit here. We encourage people to visit the Friends of Lexington Avenue website (avl.mx/bvh) to learn more and get involved with this important downtown effort. Please consider joining the Friends of Lexington Avenue coalition.
Susan Rich was a pastry chef and food editor who worked in New York restaurants for many years, and who now lives with her family in Los Angeles. Twin sister Anne Strauss has a master’s degree in art history, was a curator at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York for over 20 years and lives with her family in New York. They are committed to continuing their father’s vision for Lexington Avenue.