It’s about time Charleston put plans to rebuild the Low Battery in high gear.
Because, frankly, there’s no telling how many more storms the 100-year-old sea wall can weather.
City Council has agreed to ask the state for $32 million to rehab The Battery along Murray Boulevard, a proposal Mayor John Tecklenburg made earlier this month. Council members delayed, deferred and demurred for a week, but finally gave in on Monday.
Tropical Storm Dorian lurking east of the Caribbean islands is a good reminder that there is no time to dawdle.
“There is a sense of urgency,” Tecklenburg says. “During Irma and Matthew, the Low Battery, the lower peninsula, the harbor and the Atlantic became one. You never know what another hurricane will bring.”
He’s right, even more than most people realize.
The city estimates it will cost $64 million to fortify the wall and raise it another 3 feet, and has socked away more than $20 million to that end. But the mayor says it would take another 10 years to save the rest.
Trouble is, Charleston probably doesn’t have that much time — as engineering studies suggest, and anyone who knows the Low Battery’s history could attest.
Nic Butler, historian with the Charleston County Public Library, chronicled the construction of The Battery on his podcast “Charleston Time Machine” a couple of years ago, and it’s not a story that instills confidence in the sea wall.
While the High Battery was built almost 200 years ago, the stretch along Murray Boulevard is much newer. The city had talked about extending the wall as early as the 1850s, but the Civil War and the destitution that followed derailed those plans for decades.
Construction didn’t begin until 1909. In less than three years, crews built nearly 3,900 feet of sea wall from the end of King Street to the western terminus of Tradd Street.
The city used fill to build up the western edge of the peninsula between the relative high ground and the wall, and it was a muddy mess until Andrew Buist Murray gave the city $40,000 (the 21st century equivalent of $1 million) to finish the wall between King and the end of the High Battery.
Hence, Murray Boulevard.
The only problem was the timing. The final phase of work took place during World War I, when labor — and good materials — were scarce. Crews had to make do, and engineers admittedly cut corners to finish the wall.
Sound scary? It should, because that’s all that stands between South of Broad and the sea.
So Tecklenburg heard that the State Infrastructure Bank — which brought us the Ravenel Bridge and, reluctantly, the Interstate 526 completion — was looking to finance smaller projects that were ready to go and had matching money in place.
The Low Battery project is made to order because it has everything the SIB is looking for: a state road, a major pedestrian and bike route and a plan that increases accessibility. But, the mayor says, the most important thing here is flood prevention and quality of life.
As in having a house that doesn’t end up standing in 3 feet of water every time it rains at high tide.
Council believed it was better to ask for money to finish the over-budget drainage project around the Crosstown — not a bad idea, but probably a no-go with the state. The SIB has already put $88 million into that drainage system, and the contract requires the city to eat any cost overruns.
“Spring-Fishburne,” the official name of the Crosstown drainage project, is critical to the city and any number of residents who live near it, so it’s good that council members are concerned. They should be.
But the Low Battery is equally necessary ... and time sensitive. If that dilapidated old sea wall goes, it will take much of the Historic District with it. And, make no mistake, that’s our moneymaker.
The Battery is our front line. Without it, there is no world-famous Charleston — and there goes everyone’s property values, not just folks South of Broad.
Tecklenburg says the worst that can happen here is the SIB says no. True. But then it will be time to hit up Washington, because there are only two certainties: Storms will keep coming, and the Low Battery won’t last forever.
It’s a miracle that sea wall has stood this long.
Reach Brian Hicks at firstname.lastname@example.org.