Friday, August 9, 2019

Plans to fill Gadsden Creek seen as both an injustice and a last chance to help Westside flooding at public meeting

After years of ignoring flooding, is WestEdge the last best hope to fix local flooding?

Posted by Sam Spence on Fri, Aug 9, 2019 at 1:37 PM

click to enlarge Barbara Gathers, a former Gadsden Green resident, speaks against proposals to develop Gadsden Creek on Wed. Aug 7 - SAM SPENCE
  • Sam Spence
  • Barbara Gathers, a former Gadsden Green resident, speaks against proposals to develop Gadsden Creek on Wed. Aug 7
As far as the numbers go, Wednesday night's meeting to collect public comment on development plans that would fill Gadsden Creek was a one-sided affair. But not even advocates flaunted the project's shiny new buildings and any potential economic benefits that might come along with them.

Most all of those who spoke agreed that flooding in the area needs to be addressed, and some supporters are willing to trade a few generic-looking buildings if it means they won't have to worry about sunny day flooding — at least for a few years.

All but a few of around 35 people who spoke at Wednesday night's 2.5-hour meeting at Burke High School were against a developer's permit application being considered by DHEC to fill about 4 acres of a tidal creek that snakes through a few blocks on the peninsula's west side. The site, currently a parking lot on Fishburne Street built on an old landfill across from the Gadsden Green public housing community, is part of the proposed WestEdge development, a multi-phase, mixed-use project that includes existing buildings like the Caroline apartment buildings and 10 WestEdge, where Publix opened earlier this summer.

The meeting included a 20-minute presentation by Michael Maher, who represents the developers of the property as CEO of the WestEdge Foundation. Referring to the site as blighted and polluted, Maher's case for approving the application included some economic development appeal, but largely hinged on components of the project that he says would make to remedy existing flooding issues that affect quality of life and are said to carry contaminants into low-lying neighborhoods nearby.

Those issues were not lost on advocates who wore T-shirts bearing the logo of the Friends of Gadsden Creek. Over the past few years, the group has worked to save what's left of a historic waterway that, today, still flows within the manmade channels cut into the garbage dump after it closed 50 years ago.

Plans for WestEdge would cover most of the creek and connect any tidal flow into underground city water systems that shuttle water out of downtown into the surrounding rivers. New drainage systems would be built to flow water into the marsh behind the Riley ballpark and into existing deep tunnels that drain water from the Spring Street and Crosstown areas.

One opponent decried the "false binary" he said is being proposed in plans for WestEdge, envisioning alternative measures that preserve the waterway and address flooding concerns. Garden and Gun editor David DiBenedetto recalled fishing in the waterway recently (catch-and-release, FWIW) and ecologist Fred Holland reported back after wading through oysters, crabs, and wildlife earlier that day to examine the area said to be polluted.

click to enlarge The WestEdge application details how existing surface runoff would be moved with the filling of Gadsden Creek and continued development of the area - DHEC
  • DHEC
  • The WestEdge application details how existing surface runoff would be moved with the filling of Gadsden Creek and continued development of the area
Other speakers, including former Gadsden Green resident Barbara Gathers, Friends leader Cyrus Buffum, and organizer Omar Muhammad framed concerns over the development as an issue of values and environmental justice. The Gadsden Green community is one of a few remaining historically black neighborhoods downtown. Before the city began piling trash on their doorstep, a working waterfront economy operated on the tidal waters of the Ashley River near what remains of the community.

After the meeting, Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg said he believed that "more analysis is needed" to assess any health risks that the creek poses to wildlife and local residents. "I'm concerned about the issue of the contamination," he said, "I need to see some data." The City of Charleston has been one of the primary partners spearheading WestEdge since it was first floated by former Mayor Joe Riley during his final years in office. Maher says WestEdge plans to meet with the Mayor's Office soon to further discuss the project.

George Palmer, president of the Westside Neighborhood Association and one of the few people who spoke in favor of the permit, said he hopes that the project will serve to finally address flooding that has gone mostly ignored by city officials since he was a child living in the area.

"I live in a house that I can barely access because of flooding even on days when it didn't rain, but there was a king tide," Palmer said at the meeting. "I, personally, am highly in favor of the WestEdge Foundation coming up with some dollars to actually solve a problem that is affecting actual residents of the area."

Public comment remains open on the permit before DHEC until Aug. 23. At that point, DHEC will compile comments and return to WestEdge with recommendations to explain or address key areas of concern. The full permit application is available on the WestEdge website.

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