Fair process produced positive plan for Dereef Park
There is so much more to the story of Dereef Park it seems to me that it warrants a complete explanation of what has happened in this part of Cannonborough Elliottborough over the past 10 years.
The plan for Dereef Park was conceived in 2002 and included not just the Dereef Park property on the north side of Morris Street but also the old Simonton School property on the south side of Morris Street between Jasper and Smith Streets. The school property was the whole block - 1.2 acres in total. And it was an open field surrounded by a chain-link fence. This field was privately owned but the neighborhood used it as a park. It was the impending development of the Simonton School lot that precipitated the Dereef Park plan.
The original acquisition of Dereef Park was a great example of community pride and resourcefulness. But Dereef Park became a big problem for the neighborhood. Unlike the Simonton School lot, Dereef Park was dark with many hidden places that were perfect for drug using and other illicit activity.
One problem with Dereef Park was that it was behind most of the houses so it was an easy place to hide. The park was constantly littered with trash and drug paraphernalia. It was literally a dumping ground. It was no place to throw a football or have a family picnic; it was a place to avoid and police.
So the developer's plan at the time was to build on 100 percent of the Simonton School lot and leave Dereef Park as it was. The city intervened and suggested a different plan; one that would have park spaces on both the north and south sides of Morris Street; that is, public park forever on both the Simonton School property and the Dereef Park property. The idea was to have two or three working public spaces in the place of broken Dereef Park.
One element of the city's plan was preservation and restoration of the small church that sits in Dereef Park. The original plan had the church being renovated as a private residence.
This plan went through a vast public process with widespread support from the surrounding neighborhoods. The zoning plan and development agreement was approved by City Council with strong support and no opposition in December 2002. The developer subsequently built phase one on the Simonton School lot, a new public park in the block now called Simonton Park and a public fountain at the corner of Morris and Jasper streets.
Phase 2 of the plan on the Dereef Park property was delayed by the recession. The original developer sold the property to the current developer. The new developer proposed to change the Dereef Park plan by putting the old church building in the newly constituted Dereef Park up on Morris Street. The city supported this change because then the restored church would be part of the public space. The redesigned Dereef Park will now include the church building (restored and given to the city and community), a playground and a lawn for casual relaxation, community gardens or whatever the neighborhood would like.
Of course, since the time the original plan was conceived and approved many new people moved into the neighborhood. They were not involved in the plan and were not necessarily even aware of it. Their arrival, however, does not change the facts that the community approved a plan, the land is now privately owned and half of the agreement has been fulfilled.
The net result will be a healthy, new Dereef Park with a restored historic church building. I suspect the church building will be a source of pride and admiration for the neighborhood for generations to come. And within the whole two block area we will have three working public spaces rather than one broken one.
There is one other correction related to the recent news story about Dereef Park. The story said that the Brooks Motel was on this site. It was not. The Brooks Motel was at the corner of Morris and Felix streets. It was privately owned and approved for demolition in 1995. A few years later it was demolished. This demolition and the homes that replaced the hotel on Felix Street had nothing to do with the plans for Dereef Park.
It's normal and expected that every neighborhood is dynamic; with new people and businesses coming and providing new perspectives and ideas. What is not helpful is when those new people and businesses arrive and say all that has been done before doesn't matter. The only way things get done in Charleston is through a lot of public discussion and debate. That was the case with Dereef Park. And when the plan is complete and there are new parks and a restored, historic church building the neighborhood will finally reap the benefits of creatively dealing with development of the Simonton School property and fixing Dereef Park.
Tim Keane is director of Planning, Preservation and Sustainability for the city of Charleston.