Once it opens early next year, visitors to Colonial Lake will enjoy new sidewalks, gardens, open space, and the signature walkway that encircles the tidal basin. But some of the most significant improvements may go unnoticed at first glance.

Since January, crews have been working at the popular Harleston Village park, executing a $5 million improvement plan drawn up by the Charleston Parks Conservancy and approved by Charleston City Council. The park has been completely closed during the transformation as sidewalks are ripped up to be replaced, historic seawalls are repaired, and curbs extended into Rutledge and Ashley Avenues to create more park area. Steps are also being taken to increase water circulation in Colonial Lake to improve water quality. Designers say that initiative will not only help improve aesthetics of the park, but also the health of the tidal waters that flow in and out.

“It’s important to remember that this all ties into the Ashley River,” Parks Conservancy Director Harry Lesesne reminded local media gathered for a preview on Thursday. Plans call for crews to install a second pipe to allow better control of water flow from the Ashley into Colonial Lake. The existing single water control installed decades ago hasn’t been operational since shortly after Hurricane Hugo.

One of the most laborious parts of the project is repairing the original 150-year old tabby sea wall hidden beneath layers of patchwork cement fixes over the years. Tabby, an historic form of concrete that’s common in traditional coastal architecture, was originally a mixture of seashells burnt to create lime with sand, crushed shells, ash, and water to create a cement that hardens to the strength of modern-day concrete.

In crafting the formula for the project at Colonial Lake, the Parks Conservancy’s team, guided by Wildwood contractors out of Walterboro, sent samples to the Scottish Lime Trust to fully assess the material makeup and strength of the existing tabby wall. After stripping away the cement, work began on reforming large portions of the Rutledge Avenue side of the wall and will continue with applications to the existing wall along Ashley Avenue.

Visitors to the old park will remember that the level of the walkway around the lake varied pretty significantly, and even included stairs in one corner. But the new walk will be a uniform height and will be completely handicap-accessible. More than a dozen new park benches are set to be installed and the walkway will be flanked with a brick seating wall for visitors to sit a spell.

Once the hardscapes are completed, work will shift to dozens of garden features scattered over the area.

“The crown jewel of all this will be the new plantings,” said DesignWorks landscape architect Scott Parker.

With a small army of volunteers to assist its handful of staff gardeners, the Parks Conservancy will set to work to dress up the park around its new benches, lighting, and trees for a late-February opening.

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