Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg and others gathered Wednesday at a West Ashley development that never should have been built to unveil a new initiative to minimize problems from future floods.
As they stood on the small bridge over Church Creek in Shadowmoss, with the soon-to-be-demolished Bridge Pointe Townhomes in the backdrop, Tecklenburg and others kicked off the start of the city's "Dutch Dialogues."
The 8-month-long effort will focus on four of the city's biggest flood problems, including 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 not necessarily to fix the city's flooding, which has been a problem throughout Charleston's history, but to review planned drainage projects and development approaches to make the city more resilient, specifically to promote safety and minimize property losses in the long run.
That's what made Bridge Point an appropriate backdrop. The city, with help from the federal government, opted to buy out the 32 townhouse units because they flooded at least three times in as many years and there's no economical drainage fix.
It marked the first instance where public money was spent here to acquire and demolish private property specifically to reduce future flood damage.
Tecklenburg said the townhouses would be bulldozed within 90 days, and while the land will remain open space, the outcome of the Dutch Dialogue process could shape what it looks like.
Last year, a Charleston delegation visited the Netherlands, a nation largely below sea level, to see its state-of-the-art approach of coping with river flooding, high water tables and storm surges.
Tecklenburg said he was impressed to see how Nijmegen residents removed part of their city to create a new amphitheater and park that also would accept extra water without damage whenever the nearby Waal River flooded.
"They had to do something outside of the box," he said.
Winslow Hastie of the Historic Charleston Foundation joined that trip, and it helped convince the foundation to partner with the city to make this year's Dutch Dialogue possible. Nonprofits like the foundation are expected to pick up almost half of the $425,000 cost; the city will pay the rest.
The city already is working on assorted drainage projects and plans for each of the four study areas. For instance, the city already has begun preliminary engineering work to extend its network of deep drainage tunnels under the downtown Medical District, a project known as Calhoun West.
Tecklenburg said the Dutch Dialogue process either will give that ongoing work a stamp of approval or constructive criticism on how the city could do better. Similar Dutch Dialogues already have been done in New Orleans, Norfolk, Va., and Bridgeport, Conn.
Dale Morris, director of strategic partnerships with the Water Institute of the Gulf, will help coordinate the work.
"We will not come to tell you what to do, but to jointly discuss new things that may be possible," Morris said Wednesday. "Charleston is unique, but it's not unique in its flood-risk profile."
Morris said the Dutch Dialogue process can act as a catalyst for a new way of thinking and help promote more conversation among government agencies. The city has a stormwater plan, but the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers also is studying peninsular flooding and a FEMA hazard mitigation plan. Meanwhile, South Carolina also has created a new state commission on flooding.
Tecklenburg noted the study areas are different. The Church Creek problem involves a mostly built out suburban area, while Johns Island is more rural. The two downtown sites are urban, but the city is redeveloping the area where the old Cooper River bridges once stood, an area now largely grassy and open.
While organizers have plans for how the Dutch Dialogues will proceed, they also plan to be flexible. Morris noted the ongoing work in Houston after Hurricane Harvey has taken a few twists that are beneficial.
"We're not quite sure what this process is because it's organic," Morris said.
The process also will be led by David Waggonner, the principal and founding partner of Waggonner & Ball, LLC. He stressed how flooding solutions should be addressed not with so-called single purpose infrastructure but with projects that not only handle water but also improve the quality of life.
"Charleston is an old city. This is a renovation," he said. "This is not from scratch."
The Medical University of South Carolina, the Clemson Design Center, the Urban Land Institute, the Charleston Resilience Network, the South Carolina Sea Grant Consortium and the College of Charleston also are expected to participate.