David Waggonner, a design architect from New Orleans, at Dutch Dialogues presentation.

David Waggonner, a design architect from New Orleans, talks to roughly 200 people who attended an information session on the Dutch Dialogues, a partnership with international experts on flooding and city design. Mikaela Porter/Staff

After two days exchanging data and discussing flooding around one of the nation's lowest-lying cities, members of Charleston's Dutch Dialogues planning project said they're ready for a week-long research and design workshop in July.

"We're going to come out of this Dutch Dialogues with a true vision for our community of how to address this challenge," Mayor John Tecklenburg told about 200 people during a Thursday presentation at the Cigar Factory.

"I'm excited. I'm hopeful. I see a light at the end of the tunnel," he said. "It's going to take a while to get there, but this is really an important step for all of these things to come together."

Dutch Dialogues is a research and design program that started in the United States after Hurricane Katrina flooded New Orleans in 2005. The big idea is leveraging the expertise in the Netherlands — most of which sits below sea level — to help American cities better prepare for flooding and sea level rise.

Other cities have approached the Dutch Dialogues research group, but their process for selecting cities is "very ad hoc," co-founder Dale Morris said Thursday. The group decided to work with Charleston after city leaders asked several times. 

Morris said Charleston's problem isn't unique; many cities along the East Coast don't have water plans for infrastructure and development. Such plans, he said, help city leaders identify which areas need more protection and determine where infrastructure investments should be made.

Designers from New Orleans, the Netherlands, engineers, groundwater experts and biologists will take part in the week-long research and design phase in July.

That phase will focus on four of Charleston's biggest flood spots: Church Creek in West Ashley, Johns Island, the undeveloped property where the old Cooper River bridges once stood and the downtown Medical District. The goal is to review planned drainage projects and development approaches for each spot.

Morris said the vacant footprint of the old Cooper River bridges, which lies just north of the Cigar Factory, is a largely disconnected neighborhood right now, but development plans there pose an opportunity "to re-knit the community together" through water improvements. 

The city's medical district, Morris said, poses significant risk to the economy and innovation in the city. 

"If that area continues to flood, it will fall apart," Morris said. "People will go elsewhere. And that is a center of economic and research activity that you cannot let go."

The problems in West Ashley's Church Creek drainage basin include development and tree removal, posing a design challenge. Research needs to be done into the groundwater system there, he said. 

"It's no surprise that it's always wet because it wants to be wet," Morris said. "We've got to find a way to allow that system to restore its basin function — to store water — and still allow the people to live there." 

Unlike some other cities the Dutch Dialogues has worked with, like New Orleans and Bridgeport, Conn., Charleston is highly functioning, Morris said. Its economy is strong and not bound up in oil or gas production. It also has lots of financial interest from developers.

Houston, on the other hand, faces more challenging policy and planning issues because the city lacks zoning, he said. Other cities Dutch Dialogues has worked with, also saw issues with regional collaboration. 

David Waggonner, a New Orleans architect with Waggonner & Ball, said one of the challenges facing the group is understanding the broader community's mindset and reviewing the topography of the area. 

“You have to understand the way that the ecosystems are performing," Waggonner said. "Most of the time, people think the solution is in the infrastructure and in the networks, but that’s all a construct and so the base layer is where you learn.”

Those unable to attend Thursday's public session may visit this website to learn more and offer feedback: www.dutchdialoguescharleston.org.

Tecklenburg said, this week's work also included asking hard questions, such as what is the soil's ability to absorb water and whether the city's development policies are appropriate. He said the work set the stage for more in-depth workshops in July. 

"Water is not to be viewed as an enemy. It can be an ally, a friend, a resource, and we have to think about that when managing water," he said. "If we think purely of water being our enemy, of Mother Nature being our enemy, we're going to lose that battle."

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Reach Mikaela Porter at 843-937-5906. Follow her on Twitter @mikaelaporterPC. 

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