When the city of Charleston studied how to prepare for sea level rise over the coming century, it concluded that middle-of-the-road estimates show seas would rise by 2½ feet over that time. As a result, it's now planning to raise the Low Battery by 2½ feet.

The project, just gearing up with a series of public meetings in the coming weeks, will replace the stained, crumbling sea wall along 1 mile of Murray Boulevard. It's ultimately expected to cost more than $100 million, take more than a decade to finish, and change the look and feel of the historic peninsula's southernmost edge.

Essentially, once work is done, Charlestonians may stop referring to the High Battery and the Low Battery because what was the Low Battery soon may look just as high as the city's historic 19th century seawall.

Mayor John Tecklenburg described the project as "a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make our city more resilient against future flooding and more beautiful for our citizens at the same time."

An opportunity, along with a challenge

The need to upgrade the Low Battery has been evident for decades.

The city has made spot repairs to the worst sections, and it replaced its original metal rails with PVC rails that won't rust, but these sorts of minor repairs don't address the challenge presented by rising seas, which already break onto the sidewalk when strong winds arrive during high tides.

City Planning Director Jacob Lindsey has been among the group of city staff working on the project.

"The Low Battery is almost 100 years old. As a seawall, it's time to take a look at it," he said. "We realize now is the time to get started. This is a front-burner project for us, let's put it that way."

The urgency is being driven by the need to protect this part of the city. In the 1960s, the city had about four days of tidal flooding, but it saw a record 50 flooding days last year.

A new report released by the Union of Concerned Scientists concluded that by 2060, under moderate sea-rise scenarios, 16 percent of peninsular Charleston will see debilitating floods every other week on average.

As the project moves ahead in comings years, it most certainly will be done in phases, likely beginning at White Point Garden, then gradually working toward the other end at the U.S. Coast Guard station. That makes sense from a resiliency standpoint, Lindsey said.

"The wave and wind action is more forceful toward the open water," he said.

But before the city can even begin preliminary design and start seeking bids and identifying financing, it has to decide exactly what it wants to build.

Four options

The city knows it wants 2½ feet more protection from the seas, but what happens between that new sea wall and Murray Boulevard is very much an open question. Lindsey and his team, including Allen Davis of the Charleston Civic Design Center, have come up with four options:

  • Building a hard sea wall along where the existing Low Battery railing is. The project also would involve correcting the landward lean in the sidewalk as well as some landscaping upgrades. It's the cheapest, most minimal change, but Lindsey said its drawback is that it would not offer the same sense of connection to the water.
  • Raising the entire sidewalk by 2½ feet and have a railing similar to the existing one on top. This likely would remove much, if not all, of the parking along the southern edge of Murray Boulevard because passengers would have trouble opening their doors if the car were parked next to the higher sidewalk.
  • This third option would raise the entire sidewalk, as in option two, but also make a more dramatic change in White Point Garden where the median and on-street parking would be removed on Murray in exchange for a landscaped pathway just landward of the raised sidewalk.
  • The fourth option also would include a raised sidewalk as in option two, but it would remove all vehicular traffic and parking from both Murray Boulevard and East Battery, where they abut White Point Garden.

Lindsey said the city's earliest estimates show the most expensive option, No. 4, would cost about 30 percent more than the least because all need to include the costly, structural seawall work.

"We're only presenting options we think are feasible within budget estimates," he added.

The project also is expected to be one of the most expensive infrastructure projects in the city's history, a nine-figure cost comparable to the city's work building deep underground drainage tunnels. Lindsey said the city plans to use several financial sources, including general revenues and hotel taxes, and City Council would approve the precise mix as construction plans firm up.

The public will weigh in during the next month, and Lindsey said he hopes residents, staff and other interested groups can reach a consensus on one option by year's end so more detailed design work can proceed.

Tecklenburg said he's proud of the work the Charleston Design Center has done so far and is looking forward to working with residents to refine and improve it.

Many opinions 

Virginia Bush of the Charlestowne Neighborhood Association said the neighborhood hopes to schedule a presentation soon to review the project.

"I don’t yet know when this will take place, but we will definitely publicize it to our members," she said. "It's true that CNA members are quite concerned about flooding and look forward to the rebuilding project, but most aren’t yet aware of the four options."

Winslow Hastie is chief preservation officer with the Historic Charleston Foundation, and his office sits at the end of High Battery. He has seen the preliminary options and has a personal favorite: raising the sidewalk and removing traffic and parking from the eastern and southern ends of White Point Garden, like it was in the beginning.

"It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to sort of reclaim the waterfront," he said. "Restitching White Point Garden to the waterfront and taking all cars out I think is fabulous, personally." 

Hastie said the Low Battery is not very nice.

"It's rusting and spalling and everything is falling part," he said. "There's no way to enjoy it but walking, and even walking isn't great as you go further (toward the Coast Guard station) with the sloping of the sidewalk."

But removing parking from White Point Garden would hamper many service workers and college students who rely on Murray as one of the last places downtown they can park for free all day. So repairing a sea wall also could involve new plans for park-and-ride lots at the other end of the peninsula.

"I think that’s a much more sensible dealing with service industry parking," Hastie said. "That needs to be done or contemplated as part of this. The neighborhood would be thrilled to see a lot of that parking go away."

Solomon Gordon, 66, said he has heard about the city's plans to raise the Low Battery but hasn't heard many details.

"I guess Charleston has all this crazy money now, with the hotels and all," he said. "You can't stop progress."

Whatever the outcome, Gordon, a retired brick layer now living on Johns Island, said he simply hopes he'll be able to continue to come to the Low Battery and fish, much like he was doing Thursday and much like he has done ever since he was a 9-year-old child growing up on Romney Street.

Reach Robert Behre at 843-937-5771. Follow him on Twitter @RobertFBehre.