The Advocate

Jay Williams, Jr.

The Battery, twice voted the best public space in Charleston, is in trouble.

The Battery, with its iconic sidewalks and stunning sea views across the Ashley, the harbor, and out to Fort Sumter, is the perfect compliment for Charleston’s magnificent homes and unique streetscapes. Throughout history, the sea has been Charleston’s window on the world, it has influenced her character and it frames her peninsula.

For Charlestonians, The Battery is not only our window on the world — it’s a respite from it. If The Battery weren’t there, we’d have to invent it.

But of late, the sea has become more menacing, relentlessly rising, and all too frequently surging and damaging our city. Those old battery walls, especially the Low Battery built between 1909 and 1919, have deteriorated; some sections show “major or severe defects.”

The Low Battery wall is not just crumbling, it’s too low. So the city plans to raise the wall and sidewalk by 2.5 feet and then add a 36-inch railing on the top that can be filled in with flood panels when needed, raising the wall by 5.5 feet in total, enough to meet the projected sea rise for the next 100 years.

The Opportunity

As this presented an opportunity to re-imagine this important space, the city’s design team involved residents, held a design workshop at the Memminger, and conducted an online survey that garnered 1,350 responses. Of the four designs created for the Low Battery, two were selected.

One plan was chosen for the “Residential Edge,” the section of the wall running from the U.S. Coast Guard station east toward King Street. A combination of designs was selected for the “Garden Edge,” which is the portion of the wall along White Point Gardens from King Street to “the turn,” the steps from the Low Battery to the High Battery.

The “Garden Edge” poses the biggest challenge. The designers envision a “linear park” behind the Battery sidewalk, with ramps, benches, grass, and shrubs. I don’t like it. First, unlike a similar design for Waterfront Park in Beaufort, we already have a park—White Point Garden; we don’t need an artificial copy. Second, when the water spills over this wall, as it certainly will, that sloped “linear park” will become a maintenance nightmare; we already have that at Colonial Lake. Third, shoehorning in this “linear park” eliminates one traffic lane on Murray Blvd. to make it one-way eastbound, from King Street around “the turn” to South Battery. That’s a bad idea.

It’s a bad idea because the southbound traffic on East Battery will be shunted off onto South Battery, a narrow two-way street engulfed with carriages, pedicabs, bikes, cars and occasional flooding. Adding Murray Blvd. traffic to that mix may not work long term, and the only solution will be to eliminate parking on the south side of South Battery.

And speaking of parking ...

The plan along the “Residential Edge,” the Low Battery Wall west of King Street, calls for the elimination of parking on the south side of Murray Blvd., now commandeered by hospitality workers and newspaper editors who park there all day. They shouldn’t be there, the argument goes, only 55 percent of the parking along both sides of that street is utilized, and that raising the sidewalk 2.5’ feet will make it impossible for people to open their car doors. If Charleston were frozen in time that might work, but it’s growing, and the need for parking places is increasing. Is eliminating 215 parking spaces on the south side of Murray Blvd a good idea, especially with the potential of losing parking on South Battery?

But for whom?

There are two things I do like. No, not really. The plan will permit giant tour busses to park near “the turn” on the east side of South Battery. That’s beyond horrible. Imagine standing at the focal point of the High Battery, showing your friends the flags flying over Ft. Sumter and trying to talk over the noisy, smelly diesel buses idling behind you.

Then plan also calls for a freestanding restroom in White Point Garden. Where would that go? Was no one around when the gazebo restroom had to be shut down because of, ah, “lewd” and illegal activities? It became an “attractive nuisance” in the most unattractive way.

If the city would create some way of finding signs to find it, the nearby Hazel Parker Playground restrooms would more than suffice. If that’s not enough, why not contact the folks at the Ft. Sumter House? That’s where most visitors want to go, literally. The city could build a nice restroom behind the building, pay the owners well for the privilege, and staff it as necessary.

Congestion. Tour busses. Restrooms. One nearby neighbor asks, “When are Charleston’s leaders going to consider the residents, not just tourists?”

The city survey showed that we enjoy The Battery for walking, sightseeing, sitting, running, parking their car and cycling in that order. Those who use it for fishing didn’t take the survey, but that’s an important use and much of the charm. However, those respondents didn’t mention park activities like dog walking or laying out in the grass, so why are we trying to make the Battery Wall a “linear park” when we already have the best one?

We had a big choice. Keep it simple and recreate the High Battery at the Low Battery. Or disrupt traffic and parking to create something truly grand and uniquely Charleston. We didn’t make that choice.

Jamie Torres Springer, an urban resilience consultant who spoke at Charleston’s “Old City, High Water” symposium, believes we should consider a “soft green edge” in places to restore the natural ecology and habitat. Asking “What does Charleston want to look like in 50 years,” he thinks we “could create a variety of open space conditions” to make the waterfront more interesting and make us feel closer to it, more as it was when the city was built. He also suggested building some underwater buffers to weaken the storm surges.

City Councilman Mike Seekings proposed enlarging White Point Garden out to the Battery walls, making it all park space. These are both interesting, unique ideas, and we should explore more of them.

It’s our Battery. What we build will be there for the next 100 years. Yes, the city worked hard, many residents voiced their opinions. But is this what we really want?

The proposed plans appear to foist more congestion, maintenance and tourists on us, none of which we need or want, to introduce a “linear park” that you can see almost anywhere.

View the plans here: http://www.designdivision.org/lowbattery/. Voice your opinion here: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Jay Williams, Jr. arrived in Charleston in 2001 to escape the cold and relax in the warmth of a better culture and climate. This all worked well until May of 2011 when he attended a cruise terminal discussion at Physicians Hall.

 

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