Alan and Amy Romanc's third-floor condo in the Bristol Condominiums overlooks the Ashley River on one side, and from their balcony, they've got one of the best views in the building of "Lake Lockwood."
That's what they call the pool of stormwater that collects in the center of Lockwood Boulevard near the corner of Spring Street on the western edge of the Charleston peninsula. It's been showing up during every heavy rain since they moved in a few years ago, but recently, the so-called lake seems to be growing.
"It used to be manageable, although it was deep, you always had one lane free," Amy said. "Now, it will cover both lanes into the median ... and it’s deeper."
They blame the nine-story building that's been under construction across the street for the past two years. Called 10 WestEdge, it's one of the first of about a dozen new buildings planned as part of the long-term WestEdge redevelopment project to put a mix of housing, businesses and research facilities on what was once a municipal landfill.
With so many more developments to come, the Romancs and other residents of The Bristol are worried flooding problems will continue to get worse on that side of the peninsula, where tidal floods and poor drainage are already well-established features of the neighborhood. However, the nonprofit overseeing the development is promising that its robust drainage plans will actually fix the complex flooding issues that have been plaguing the area for decades.
It's going to take a while for things to get better, said Michael Maher, chief executive officer of the WestEdge Foundation. The nonprofit was formed by the city of Charleston and the Medical University of South Carolina to oversee the redevelopment efforts in the area bound by Lockwood, Fishburne, Hagood and Spring streets. The city and MUSC own most of the land in the area, about 18 acres combined.
"It’s not one big solution, it’s a number of small solutions that hopefully create one big result," Maher said.
Here's the plan.
Draining 'Lake Lockwood'
Maher said the flooding on Lockwood Boulevard did get worse because of the 10 WestEdge construction but not for the reasons nearby residents might think.
When Lockwood Boulevard was constructed, Maher said the S.C. Department of Transportation didn't implement a drainage system for it. Basically, stormwater was expected to flow off the road and into the marsh next to it.
But it turned out that water was actually flowing to a lower spot on the other side of Lockwood, into a parking lot behind the former Crosby's Seafood building, Maher said. Eventually, MUSC took over the parcel to pave a parking lot, and they installed some underground catch basins to deal with some of the water collecting on the property.
Maher said developers didn't realize that when they began building 10 WestEdge, so they inadvertently obstructed the water from going into those catch basins. Thus, the deeper "Lake Lockwood."
The foundation has hired a contractor to install a new system to collect water from the low area along Lockwood Boulevard and divert it to a nearby culvert under the road and eventually out to the Ashley River. The project will take six weeks, but it can't start yet because construction is taking place on the building above the site, which is a safety issue.
"You can’t have one construction crew working on the ground and another crew working with bricks up above," Maher said.
He expects the problem to be resolved sometime in September.
Rick Malaspina, who serves on the board of the homeowners association at The Bristol, isn't sold on it.
"We’re going to believe that when we see it," he said.
That's just one minor piece of the drainage infrastructure needed for WestEdge.
The big plan
The site of WestEdge was mostly marshland until the 1950s when the city built a landfill there. For more than 20 years, trash was dumped into the marsh, which built up the area over time. When the landfill closed in 1973, the government required layers of clay to be placed on top of the trash to hold it in place, keeping it out of the river.
Then, more layers came in the form of concrete and buildings. In some places, marsh grew back on top of the clay.
One of those resilient wetlands has often been called Gadsden's Creek. It's not actually the same creek that existed there before the landfill, Maher said, but it follows a similar path from behind the Joe Riley baseball stadium, through the WestEdge site, and down to the Ashley River right next to the Bristol Condominiums.
Maher said the creek evolved from an old drainage ditch dug out for the landfill operations, and now it's a federally protected wetland. Because it's connected to the river, incoming tides often spit water into the paved areas along its edges, causing nuisances on a sunny day, and big flooding problems when it rains.
"If we’re going to fix the flooding, then we have to do something with the cause of flooding," Maher said.
The plan is to fill in the creek and replace it with a closed underground pipe that can be better controlled with tidal gates. That pipe has been installed, but it's not controlling tidal flooding because the creek hasn't been sealed off.
For years, the idea has been divisive. Environmentalists argued the foundation should work with nature, not against it by replacing a wetland with a man-made system.
But one of the most vocal opponents of an earlier version of the plan three years ago, the Charleston Waterkeeper, now generally supports what WestEdge wants to do. That's because the foundation has since proposed other components that will restore some of the wetlands along Hagood Avenue to create a new natural tidal stream that flows away from the developed areas.
"The question was always, do we just pave it over and forget about it, or do something more?" said Andrew Wunderley, the nonprofit organization's executive director. "We feel like the mitigation package they’re proposing is reasonable."
Another mitigation strategy is to restore some other wetlands along the Ashley River on the former Kings Grant Golf Course in North Charleston.
Overall, WestEdge's plan creates three different drainage basins with different outfalls.
If the state and federal authorities allow Gadsden's Creek to be filled in, the eastern portion of the site above Hagood Avenue will no longer be impacted by tidal flooding, so it can drain stormwater to the new deep tunnel system the city is installing along the Crosstown. It's expected to be completed in 2024.
The lower portion where two new buildings are under construction along Lockwood Boulevard will use the underground pipe to drain water out to the river next to the Bristol Condominiums. The northern portion will use the restored wetland to drain water into a culvert behind the Joe Riley stadium.
The West Side Neighborhood Association and City Councilman William Dudley Gregorie, who represents the area, are supportive of the vision.
"I do think some of the nuisance flooding at Hagood and Fishburne and Line will be reduced as a result of the WestEdge project," Gregorie said. "If it weren't for the WestEdge project, we would have to wait much longer for those issues to be addressed."