It’s unfathomable that we are on the cusp of a mayoral election and have yet to break ground on reconstruction of the Low Battery. But 30 days before the Nov. 5 vote, that is exactly where we are.
If Mayor Bailey were running for reelection, he would have been out there on Murray Boulevard at the Coast Guard station long ago with a hard hat and a jackhammer for a big fat photo-op that would be on the front page of this newspaper and the evening news of every TV station in town. Mayor Bailey might not have the money in the bank to finish the job, but he would find the dough to keep those jackhammers working overtime through Election Day, you can be darn certain of that.
The crumbling Low Battery is all that stands between the Ashley River and the most vulnerable — and the most valuable — neighborhood in the city to the storms and the floods that have become our new normal. Four years after the Thousand Year Flood swamped South of Broad, and then Matthew and then Irma and then the near misses of Florence and Dorian, the residents (i.e., the voters) are still waiting.
While waiting for the city to award a construction contract — I can’t believe I am actually writing these words — residents have been spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to raise their own homes. It should no longer be a secret that the grand homes that people from all over the world come to admire are now depreciating, not appreciating, assets. Those “For Sale” signs that can sit on houses for years tell you all you need to know. Some streets are becoming eerily empty.
The Low Battery reconstruction has happened — I mean hasn’t happened — on Mayor John Tecklenburg’s watch.
‘’I caused the delay in this project because I realized right then and there that we weren’t doing enough,’’ Tecklenburg said in a front-page story on New Year’s Day of 2018, explaining how Hurricane Matthew convinced him the planned sea wall was too low. The story went on to say the design was all set, and “he’s confident the repair project can begin at the end of 2018.’’
Tecklenburg has failed to get the work done — instead spending money on emergency fixes — but his opponents have done no better.
In the same story that Tecklenburg was promising to start work a year ago, Councilman Gary White was worrying about something else altogether: “Everybody has said, ‘We don’t care what you do with the wall, just don’t take away the parking.’” He really said that, folks.
Said Councilman Mike Seekings, whose district includes South of Broad: “This is first a repair project not for a sea wall that is failing — it has failed. We have to do it quickly.’’ That was 21 months ago and counting.
The Low Battery’s dire condition is a surprise to no one. Fifteen years ago a city study found the sea wall was one big storm away from collapse. Another study in 2015 — we lead the league in studies — confirmed the first study, but put a massively higher price tag on the work. It’s like your leaky roof; it doesn’t get cheaper the longer you wait.
Jacob Lindsey, the city’s planning director, attributes the delays to the thicket of state and federal regulatory hurdles the complex project had to overcome. (Anyone who has gone through the city’s finicky Board of Architectural Review process is allowed to snicker here.) In particular, Lindsey says the South Carolina Department of Transportation — otherwise known as the Department of No — rejected practically the city’s entire design. So the city took over Murray Boulevard from the state to get it done. And on and on.
The Low Battery will be raised to about the height of the High Battery, and almost all the parking will be preserved (since you asked, Councilman White). The city has set aside $26 million in tourism taxes for the project since 2014, less than half the expected cost of $60 million or so. It has applied for State Infrastructure Bank funding, but who knows?
If the contract is, in fact, finally awarded this month, construction on the first of five phases could start (maybe) in January. But it will take 4-1/2 to 10 years to complete, depending on the funding. That’s a lot of hurricane seasons.
And beyond the Low Battery, there is finishing the Crosstown drainage project ($43 million in the hole), the $400 million Calhoun West project, a sea wall along Lockwood to Brittlebank Park ($125 million), Church Creek basin in West Ashley ($200 million), the East Side and Morrison Drive ($100 million). And more. Where’s the money going to come from? Who the heck knows?
At the foot of Rutledge Boulevard, a handsome granite monument marks the completion of the first 4,000 feet of the Low Battery, finished in an astonishing two years in 1911. The cost: $261,000. The plaque reads:
‘’The accomplishment of this project was due principally to the indefatigable efforts, the inspiration and the ceaseless energy of the Hon. R.G. Rhett, mayor.’’
If only Mayor Rhett were on the ballot in November.
Steve Bailey can be reached at email@example.com. Follow on Twitter @sjbailey1060.