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Charleston's iconic Low Battery won't remain low much longer as city eyes rising seas

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Ryan Smith (from left), Tommy Smith and Justin Ballard break ground along the Low Battery for the Low Battery Seawall Project with contractor Gulf Stream Construction Inc. on Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2019 in Charleston. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

Repairing and heightening Charleston's Low Battery begins this week with crews drilling more than 100 feet below ground to test the strength of concrete and wire cables before demolition work begins next to the Coast Guard station.

It's one of Charleston's first projects that takes sea-level rise into account, though it will do much more than that: The rebuilt walkway will improve the seawall and reinforce its structural integrity, improve accessibility and beautify the area.

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Water floods the Low Battery during Tropical Storm Irma on September 11, 2017.  Charleston city staff, preparing for the city's first sea-level rise project, will meet with Murray Boulevard residents Wednesday night to share details — when work is expected to begin and what traffic closures may look like. File/Matthew Fortner/Staff

"This will protect Charleston for its future against sea-level rise and weather — the existential threat to Charleston," Mayor John Tecklenburg said Wednesday with a group of City Council members, staff and contractors by his side. 

City Councilman Mike Seekings, who represents residents near the Low Battery, said the work will be iconic and takes into account necessary repairs and sea-level rise.

It's a much-needed project: The city has had to make upward of $100,000 in emergency repairs to different places along the Low Battery in recent years.

"This piece of infrastructure was worn out and tired and needed to be replaced," Tecklenburg said. "It's over 100 years old and you can see by the settling of the sidewalk and the cracking." 

On Thursday, crews will test pilings before demolition begins. Work along Murray Boulevard, from Tradd to Ashley streets, is expected to continue through 2020, and eastbound traffic on Murray will be detoured elsewhere. 

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Ryan Smith and Joshua Rivers walk along the closed sidewalk for the Low Battery Seawall Project with contractor Gulf Stream Construction Inc. on Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2019, in Charleston. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

2016 storm an eye-opener

Tecklenburg and City Parks Director Jason Kronsberg were at the city's Emergency Operations Center three years ago as waves from Hurricane Matthew flowed freely over the Low Battery. The two watched camera footage of water as it flowed above the original level earmarked for the Low Battery reconstruction project.

They soon concluded if the city wanted the Low Battery wall to help more with future storm surges, they would have to aim higher. 

Plans for the project stalled after Matthew. The design has since changed to raise the wall between 2½ to 3 feet higher than its current height. It also will include slats for plexiglass to be installed during storms for added protection.

The project's total cost is estimated at $64 million with the city funding at least half of it. Currently, the city has $27 million set aside and would commit the next 10 years of the city’s accommodations tax and hospital fees to make up the difference.

For years, the city has put aside $2 million or $3 million in funding for the project. On Tuesday, City Council agreed to set aside another $5.2 million. A $32 million grant application to the State Infrastructure Bank is in the works. 

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. Provided/Charleston Design Center

The city awarded the project to Charleston-based Gulf Stream Construction Co. 

Wiley Becker, president of the Charlestowne Neighborhood Association, which includes about 1,050 residents who live south of Broad and Exchange streets, said flooding there has been a major issue at least three of the last four years. Two floods were caused by a saltwater storm surge.

Many there are glad to see work beginning. 

"The general sentiment is that it's going to be a pain for a little while, but we're excited it's getting started," Becker said. 

Unlike the High Battery, long known as one of the city's prime tourist destinations, the Low Battery was created as part of an early 20th-century plan to reclaim low-lying land for a new neighborhood. This stretch of the battery draws more locals than tourists, Tecklenburg said. 

"This end of the battery is for the residents," he said. "They come to walk, they come to exercise, come to repose, they come here to go fishing."

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Ann Wrobleski walks her Boykin spaniels, Lucky and Happy, along the Low Battery on Friday, Nov. 29, 2019, in Charleston. The City of Charleston will begin work on the Low Battery along Murray Boulevard between Ashley Boulevard and Tradd Street. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

'Toolkit for resiliency'

City Stormwater Management Director Matthew Fountain said the Low Battery project began with the need to fix structural problems, such as settling and concrete cracking from rusted rebar. But its evolving design kept in mind the need to address sea-level rise. Unlike other city projects, the Low Battery work requires vibration monitoring. 

"We're relatively close to historic homes and with heavy construction we're going to do baseline reporting and then monitor the vibrations," Fountain said.

Other projects around the city also take into account sea-level rise, but they're all underground: Generator fuel tanks for the Spring/Fishburne project were placed in secured spots to accommodate storm surge, and check valves were installed throughout the city for tidal surges. There are new check valves and a small berm on Morrison Drive.

Early next year, the Army Corps of Engineers is expected to release findings of a perimeter protection plan, city staff have said. 

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Jose Moner and Jose Galopa, visiting from Spain, stroll along the Low Battery on Friday, Nov. 29, 2019, in Charleston. The City of Charleston will begin work on the Low Battery along Murray Boulevard between Ashley Boulevard and Tradd Street. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

Jason Crowley, the Coastal Conservation League's Community and Transportation Director, said the start of the project is part of a "bigger toolkit for resiliency" the city needs going forward.

"Back in 2009 when the original engineering assessment came out, that was an eye-opener for us but not seen publicly as a major priority," Crowley said. "This is something that I would say we really started paying attention to more after (Hurricane) Matthew when the mayor identified it as a priority need." 

Crowley hopes this project will spur others, not just on the peninsula but in West Ashley and the Sea Islands, and work with other municipalities in Charleston, Dorchester and Berkeley counties. 

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

Mikaela Porter joined The Post and Courier in April 2019 and writes about the city of Charleston. Previously, Mikaela reported on breaking news, local government, school issues and community happenings for The Hartford Courant in Hartford, Conn.

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