After applying pressure for a year and a half, Preservation Greensboro says Duke Energy is finally cleaning up a decommissioned downtown substation.
John Graham stood across the street from the lot, under the shade of a tree near the Blandwood Mansion, watching a crew of workers through a rusty, chain-link fence as they operated their heavy machinery.
The property, a former Duke Energy substation site, has sat vacant for years at the corner of Blandwood Avenue and McGee Street near Eugene Street in downtown Greensboro, but nobody seems to know exactly how long. Duke Energy spokeswoman Paige Layne said that the company’s area transmission manager isn’t sure of the exact year, “but he said it has been quite a while.”
Graham said he believes the site could have been cleaned up a quarter century ago, but said it hasn’t had above-ground equipment in a decade.
“If you looked at the fence and how old and ramshackle it was, it had to have been there for 10 years or more with nothing on it,” he said.
Since Graham joined Preservation Greensboro in late 2012 and became a fixture at Blandwood across the street — he’s now on staff as development director — he’s been trying to convince Duke to clean up the site and donate it to the preservationist organization. Last week, he finally saw some action.
Shortly after a public tussle with Westerwood residents connected to Preservation Greensboro’s historic-homes tour, Duke Energy began cleaning up the lot that sits a block away from the new county jail downtown. Graham doesn’t see it as coincidental.
“This is a case where the squeaking wheel got the grease,” he said. “It’s very interesting, the timing of all of it. Recently they’ve ramped up discussions because they could feel us turning the flame up. We have been after them to clean it up and let us use it for a parking lot.”
Developer Dawn Chaney, who recently chaired Downtown Greensboro Inc.’s board and whose office is within throwing distance of the site, applauded the company’s action.
“I’m all for development of downtown Greensboro and this has been an eyesore for quite some time,” she said. “What happened is they came in, excavated anything that was underground… and leveled it off. It’s more attractive than it was before. I think it’s just going to add to the beautification of downtown and we’ve got to think that way.”
The site was more than just ugly, Graham said. It was covered in brown dirt that wouldn’t even support weeds.
“That dirt was just a different consistency and every time it would rain it would go right down the storm sewer because they had no erosion fence,” he said. “Weeds will grow just about anywhere. The weeds grew in the gravel and all around it but it didn’t grow on that brown dirt. [Duke Energy] brought a Hazmat team in here and took dirt. If it was toxic I’m glad it’s gone.”
Layne said the company began cleaning up the land in response to complaints it received and is grading the property and removing the fence “to make it a little bit more presentable to the community.”
“Apparently it was kind of messy,” Layne said. “We’re cleaning it up, making it blend in more with the surroundings in that area. There’s no construction; they’re not building anything.”
Chaney and Graham would like to see something built, namely a parking lot for Blandwood Mansion in the short term and potentially a building.
“This would be easier to tell people where to park when they’re coming to a special event,” Chaney said. “Our goal is to landscape it so you’re not looking at blacktop, assuming that we can get that all taken care of legally. You know me as a dreamer and a visionary. Maybe the time will come where Blandwood will need more of a facility and if they owned those two lots, guess what? There’s more space for an additional facility for a conference center, or a meeting space or whatever.”
Graham and Chaney have recently initiated other changes at the intersection, successfully pushing the city to remove part of a median on McGee Street that made it impossible to drive the full length of Blandwood Avenue uninterrupted.
Chaney said it would be “tremendous” for Duke’s suffering public relations and for Preservation Greensboro if the company donated the land.
“Talking with John Graham, that’s something we’d certainly like to project for future development,” she said. “I think it would be a plus for both entities since Duke Energy has gotten some negative publicity in our neighborhoods like Westerwood.”
Layne said Duke Energy is unlikely to sell or even lease the property.
“A lot of the infrastructure, the conduit that’s coming up, it’s still attached to the grid system,” she said. “We’re going to keep the property in case we ever need it. I don’t see how we could sell it because it’s still connected to the infrastructure. We don’t have any plans to use it but we are going to hold onto it.”
Graham said he isn’t buying it He chatted up the foreman with Substation Concrete Services from Rock Hill, SC who was responsible for the site clean-up, and said the man told Graham that wires connecting the site to the grid had long since been removed. Graham said the crew pulled a 1948 transformer out of the site and other infrastructure that had remained underground as well as removing dirt and grading it.
“He may not know,” Graham said. “He may just be parroting what he thinks will satisfy whoever he’s talking to but he’s the guy charged with fixing up the site. It was interesting because these guys, they’re not paid to get out here and whitewash the outhouse; they’re paid to do a job.”
Regardless, Graham still has another card to play. This summer the Governor Morehead Forum for Economic Development is hosting a meeting of female CEOs, and Graham is after Duke’s CEO Lynn Good to attend.
“I think word got out about that and the last thing [Duke Energy] would ever want to happen is the CEO to [go] out over there and see that property next to one of the only places on the National Register of Historic Places.”
Despite the cleanup, Graham is crossing his fingers that Good will visit and decide the company should gift the land to Preservation Greensboro. And if that falls through, Graham has likely stood staring across the street on several occasions, formulating a stack of other ideas while being careful not to tip his hand.