Neighborhood group files federal suit over Dereef Park space
Dereef Park Court curves into a large patch of raised dirt, surrounded by a wire fence. Signs of construction can be spotted on the site, once the spot of a park in the Cannonborough-Elliotborough neighborhood. Homes are slated to rise in the space.
There were few tears shed when the city closed the old Dereef Park, a scraggly plot that had seen its share of drug use, as well as a murder that claimed a woman's life in 2006. But neighbors assumed the city would find them some nearby green space to replace what they had lost.
Instead, they learned that their park land is being shifted to a parcel of land in a neighborhood more than a mile away.
Now, one neighborhood group is fighting to keep that park space in their area, challenging a land swap made by the city that made the move possible.
On Wednesday, Friends of Dereef Park, a group made up of residents of the neighborhood, filed a federal suit against the National Park Service and the S.C. Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism, alleging the agencies improperly allowed the city of Charleston to transfer required park space from Dereef Park to another spot near Concord Park.
A city of Charleston spokeswoman said city attorneys had not yet seen the suit so they would not comment. Representatives from the federal and state parks agencies said they would not comment on pending litigation.
Cannon Street resident Heather Templeton, a co-chair of Friends of Dereef Park, said the group's members would like the site to be restored to its former .84 acres of parkland. If that's not possible, the group would like input in the search for a "proper" replacement park, she said.
"This is more about making sure we have adequate green space in our neighborhood," Templeton said. "I have two small kids and it used to be very convenient to go to the park and play."
The replacement park is not an adequate substitute because it was already an existing park and is located in a tourist district 1.2 miles away by foot, according to the group.
It's not a space those in the Cannonborough-Elliotborough neighborhood would ever use, according to Evan Thompson, the executive director of the Preservation Society of Charleston.
"The idea of going to walk to Concord Street is just preposterous," said Thompson.
Friends of Dereef is asking the court to reverse the move and send the matter back to the National Park Service, requiring the agency to initiate a new approval process of the Dereef Park conversion.
The group is alleging that when the city accepted federal funding through the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act to develop Dereef Park in the 1980s, it was required to accept federal covenants that protected the park as a recreational space, according to the complaint.
In 2003, the city entered into a deal with a private developer who wanted to build on the park. Five years later, the city asked for state and federal approval to lift the restrictions on the park and transfer them to a substitute property on Concord. This, the group alleges, violated federal conservation and environmental acts.
"They took the green space, chopped it up and moved it to a different area that is not practical," Templeton said. "No one understood it was protected. We did not find out about it until early last year. There's a lengthy process that needs to happen (for the land replacement process) and we don't think that process was followed."
Dereef Park, like the area around it, has had its fair share of transitions.
Randolph Brown, 59, recalls playing football near the park as a child. He grew up nearby on Jasper Street, where he lived in a two-bedroom home with five other family members, sometimes sleeping on the floor. His old neighborhood is now lined with new residential homes and buildings.
"The change is fine, but rent is too high now," said Brown, who lives in North Charleston.
Dereef Park has historical significance, according to the group. Dereef was named after the Dereef brothers, successful black businessmen who lived and did business in the area in the 1800s. The community has served as a center of African-American activity since the late 1800s, according to the Friends of Dereef group.
The park's southern area features two Civil Rights-era sites, including the former site of the Brooks Motel, where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. once stayed during his organizing visit to Charleston.
It's also home to the United Missionary Chapel, which was moved about 500 feet within Dereef Park earlier this year. The building is expected to be restored.
Reach Natalie Caula Hauff at 937-5594 or Twitter.com/ncaula.