New design for Charleston's Low Battery

Charleston has decided that this design would work best for the Low Battery seawall, which has to be repaired and elevated to protect the peninsula from sea level rise and severe storm surge. Charleston Design Center/Provided

When Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg took office in 2016, there were already plans in place to restore and elevate the Low Battery seawall along the historic peninsula's southern edge.

Its platform was going to be raised to about the same level as the wall's first rung of railing. But when Tecklenburg saw Hurricane Matthew hurl waves well over those rails later that year, he realized the new Low Battery wall still wouldn't be high enough to shield the area from rising seas and powerful storms.

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Water floods the Low Battery during Tropical Storm Irma on September 11, 2017. File/Matthew Fortner/Staff

"I caused the delay in this project because I realized right then and there that we weren’t doing enough, that we weren’t raising the wall enough to really protect the peninsula," he said.

The storm surge there was even worse in September during Tropical Storm Irma, which raised the tide to nearly 10 feet at its highest point.

Now, after six months of studying new options, the city has settled on a design that will widen and raise the Low Battery's base 2½ feet, which would make it about the same height as the High Battery.

The wall will still have a railing on top so pedestrians can enjoy the view of the harbor, but Tecklenburg said they're considering removable barriers that can be installed on the rails before expected floods or storms, adding another 2½ feet of storm surge protection when necessary.

Widening the sidewalk likely would mean removing much, if not all, of the parking along the southern side of Murray Boulevard. City Planner Jacob Lindsey told City Council recently that more spaces would be added along East Battery to make up the difference. 

The details of the parking layout and other amenities are still coming together, Tecklenburg said. But with a firm plan for the seawall's structure already in engineers' hands, he's confident the repair project can begin by the end of 2018.

"We’re not waiting around for the other decisions to be made to get started," he said. "We’ll have it all figured out before we have the shovel in the dirt."

Pinching off parking?

The Battery is a cherished community amenity as much as it is a functioning seawall, a place residents and visitors frequent for pristine views of the harbor.

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Sailboats pass Murray Boulevard where Charleston is looking at all the options as it begins planning for the multi-million dollar effort to raise the low battery by 2.5 feet. File/Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

Tecklenburg says rebuilding the Low Battery will be an opportunity to improve the public's experience. Right now, it has some rusted rails and uneven pavement.

But many are concerned the upgrades will also mean losing the 214 parking spots there that have always been free and unregulated.

"Everybody has said ‘We really don’t care what you do with the wall, just don’t take away the parking,' " City Councilman Gary White said.

The city considered four design options over the past six months, and one called for removing all the area's parking and vehicular traffic lanes. After receiving public input at multiple charrettes held by the Charleston Design Center, the city chose the plan that minimized the effects on parking and traffic, Lindsey said.

Cars will still be able to drive down Murray Boulevard and East Battery. Parking will function a little differently, though. The planning department is proposing adding more parking along East Battery that would be a mix of metered and residential spots, and maybe some free spots, Lindsey said. 

Most people visiting the area for a few hours don't get to park in those free spots as it is, Councilman Mike Seekings argued. Many service workers and college students rely on Murray Boulevard as one of the last places downtown they can park for free all day.

The city is working on a park-and-ride lot on the upper peninsula to help workers commute into downtown, which could be a major part of the solution.

"Right now there is truly no public access for people who are there for a short-to-medium time," Seekings said. "The people who park there are squatters. It’s not a long-term sustainable model."

White, however, said he's concerned the new parking configuration might bother nearby residents.

"If the alternative to losing parking on that side of the road would be to eliminate some residential parking, I would say that, too, would be a bad choice because residents downtown are already struggling with the challenges of off-street parking," he said.

'It has failed'

Seekings, who represents the lower peninsula, doesn't want parking concerns to overshadow the importance of rebuilding the seawall.

The crumbling wall along a mile of Murray Boulevard was built a century ago and has weathered several major floods and severe storms, including the devastating Hurricane Hugo in 1989.

"This is first a repair project for a seawall that is not failing — It has failed," Seekings said. "We have to do it quickly."

In the meantime, weather conditions are getting worse. In the 1960s, the city had about four days of tidal flooding but experienced a record 50 flooding days last year.

With the sea level expected to rise 2½ feet over the coming century, experts say coastal cities must begin the costly and time-consuming work of making their infrastructure more resilient.

The Low Battery repair project is one of the city's immediate priorities. About $23 million has already been budgeted for it since 2014, about a quarter of the estimated cost for the whole project.

That's enough to get a large swath of it done, likely beginning at the section in front of White Point Garden, Tecklenburg said.

"Since the rest of it all the way down is the same, if we do 500 feet, we’ll know exactly how much the rest of it will cost," he said.

The city also plans to apply for some state grants. 

"Murray Boulevard is a state street. It would fall into Charleston Harbor but for this seawall," the mayor said. "I think it’s reasonable that the state help us on this project."

He expects to be able to bid the contract for the construction work in mid-2018. 

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Reach Abigail Darlington at 843-937-5906 and follow her on Twitter @A_Big_Gail.

Abigail Darlington is a local government reporter focusing primarily on the City of Charleston. She previously covered local arts & entertainment, technology, innovation, tourism and retail for the Post and Courier.