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City, feds and neighborhood agree to settle longstanding DeReef Park dispute

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Charleston will be getting a new park — one that may incorporate a former church as a new community building.

The Cannonborough-Elliottborough neighborhood also will get several new homes just north of Morris Street, some future development at the northeastern corner of Cannon and President streets and a quick completion of a smaller version of DeReef Park, including a renovated praise house that has stood empty for years.

All this stems from newly approved settlement agreements to two lawsuits over the development of the original DeReef Park.

The deal will include the city's eventual ownership of Shiloh AME Church at 172 Smith St. The congregation plans to remain in its building for a few more months before moving to a new home, and the city will have about three years to decide how to turn it into a park and/or community building.

Assistant City Attorney Susan Herdina said Friday the city views the settlements as complicated yet satisfactory.

"It’s one of those deals where nobody’s happy," she said, "but from the city’s perspective, we wanted to see the litigation end and the development go forward and to have some new park space in the community."

A decade ago, the city struck a deal allowing about 33 new homes to be built on much of the original DeReef Park north of Morris Street. In exchange, the developer agreed to build a smaller 0.34 acre park there, including the renovation of an historic praise house for use as a civic building.

But the city acquired the original park property with a federal grant that had strings attached: If the city ever converted the land for something other than recreation, it had to find suitable replacement parkland close by.

The city originally tried to satisfy that requirement by citing its new Gadsdenborough Park, which was taking shape about a mile away, but some residents objected. They banded together as Friends of DeReef Park and filed a federal lawsuit, challenging the move. It sought to force the city — and the federal government — to find a better replacement park site.

Meanwhile, the development known as the Gathering at Morris Square was taking shape with about 11 new homes. After the federal lawsuit was filed in late 2013, construction and sales essentially stopped because of the legal cloud over the land.

The developer, caught in a bureaucratic limbo, filed a lawsuit against the city in state court last year.

Chris Phillips of the Gathering at Morris Square said he put up a brand-new sign for the project Tuesday and hopes to start work on nine new homes within a few weeks. And some of the already built homes should close very soon.

“We’re obviously excited about that," he said. "It’s been a long haul and needless to say, a frustrating one.”

Blan Holleman, a lawyer who did some initial work on the case and also lives in the Cannonborough-Elliottborough Neighborhood, called it a good settlement.

He noted it not only will lead to the refurbishment of the Praise House, "but it also will add recreation space to a part of town that's seeing a tremendous volume of concrete."

City Council has been briefed on the settlement terms, Herdina said. Other details of the deal include:

  • The city will give the Gathering at Morris Square $350,000.
  • The Gathering at Morris Square will deed to the city the Shiloh AME Church properties that it recently bought for slightly more than $1 million. They include not only 172 Smith St. but also two vacant lots at 64 and 66 DeReef Court that the developer previously deeded to the church as part of its original development plan.
  • The city also will give the Gathering at Morris Square 144 and 146 Cannon St., two properties it acquired for $482,262 in January 2014 for a drainage projecting the area. A city easement minimizes development options on one parcel, and Phillips said he plans to develop the two lots as one.
  • The city also agrees to pay half the cost for renovating the Praise House, which Phillips said he hopes to do by year's end.
  • The city also either will move to demolish the Shiloh AME Church building or renovate it for community use by the end of 2020.

Herdina said the city also continues to look for new parkland in the neighborhood and eventually will strike a deal with the federal government and the state over a suitable replacement for the original DeReef Park.

“At this point, we don’t know where those properties are going to be. We’re going through a long process with the federal government and the state,” she said. "We are still going to be continuing that effort."

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