A wetland, or drainage ditch to fill? (copy)

The federally-protected Gadsden Creek that runs through the WestEdge development site along Hagood Avenue could be filled in, but a new group hopes to save it. File/Staff

The large-scale redevelopment underway along the western edge of the Charleston peninsula is envisioned to bring dozens of new buildings with housing, businesses and research facilities to what was once a municipal landfill.

The project, known as WestEdge, has also brought some recent controversy to the area. 

A new coalition, Friends of Gadsden Creek, announced plans Thursday to oppose the development's proposal to get rid of the creek that runs through the project site. The group, with about 60 members, includes residents, scientists, engineers, health care professionals and others, according to a release.

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westedge (copy)

Work continues on the nine-story WestEdge building rising at Lockwood Boulevard and Spring Street in Charleston. The nine-story, mixed-use site will house 350 apartments, a Publix supermarket and other retailers. File/Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

WestEdge has requested permission from the Army Corps of Engineers to fill in nearly 4 acres of the tidal stream and surrounding wetlands. 

Cyrus Buffum, a founder of the opposition group, said destroying the creek and the ecosystem it supports shouldn't be an option. He added that Charleston has repeatedly suffered from flooding problems, often because so many natural systems such as streams and wetlands have been lost to developments.

"We are far more equipped today to recognize that the solution is not to double down on those mistakes, but to go back and repair those mistakes," he said.

Leaders of the WestEdge project argue that the plan to fill in Gadsden Creek is warranted in this case, and that the impacts will be offset with efforts to restore one wetlands on the site and another one upstream, on the former Kings Grant Golf Course in North Charleston

Because it’s connected to the river, Gadsden Creek often overflows with incoming tides, flooding the surrounding areas along Hagood Avenue — especially when it rains. 

The plan is to fill in the creek and replace it with a closed underground pipe that can be controlled with tidal gates, not unlike other drainage lines installed in downtown Charleston.

If the eastern portion of the site above Hagood Avenue is no longer impacted by tidal flooding from the creek, it can drain stormwater to the new deep tunnel system the city is installing along the Septima P. Clark Parkway, also known as the Crosstown.

To offset the toll that would take on the natural environment, the developers are proposing to create a tidal stormwater pond on an existing wetland at the corner of Fishburne Street and Hagood Avenue. It would be connected to the Ashley River through a piped system that would run behind the Joseph P. Riley Jr. Park baseball stadium. 

Buffum said he doubts the plan to fill in the creek is solely about drainage because it would also free up some land for development.

The skepticism was also echoed in an opposition letter submitted to the Army Corps by the S.C. Department of Natural Resources. 

"The filling of natural marsh areas and replacing them with impervious surfaces will likely exacerbate drainage problems and should not be considered a viable option for solving drainage problems in this watershed," the letter said. 

The state agency also had concerns about the mitigation strategies. The proposed tidal pond wouldn't support a natural ecosystem, the letter said, because the piped system would obstruct the tidal flow of water. 

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service shared similar concerns in their own letters. 

Michael Maher, chief executive officer of the WestEdge Foundation, said filling in the wetlands would increase the amount of land that could be developed. But it's not about that, he said. 

The site of WestEdge was mostly marshland until the 1950s when the city built a landfill there. When it closed in 1973, the government required clay to be placed on top of the trash to hold it in place, keeping it out of the river. 

Now that Gadsden Creek has re-emerged, Maher said, it's polluting the Ashley River with remnants from the old landfill. 

Filling it in, he said, would solve two problems at once: pollution and flooding. The layer of trash would make it infeasible to save the creek, he said.

Buffum disagreed, saying plenty of polluted waterways around the country have been restored.

"If we applied that same logic to ... any number of rivers that were plagued with pollution, then we would have filled in developed rivers throughout the entire country," he said.

The WestEdge Foundation is a nonprofit 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.

The West Side Neighborhood Association supports the overall proposal. The Charleston Waterkeeper and the Coastal Conservation League have generally been supportive of the latest mitigation plans, but they didn't formally support or oppose the plan to fill in Gadsden Creek.

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.