Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
The South Carolina city handed over protected park space to private developers under dubious terms. Now, residents are fighting back.
All that the developers known as The Gathering at Morris Square LLC have been trying to do is build some nice homes near downtown Charleston. They’ve already started planting three- and four-bedroom houses near Dereef Park, a somewhat troubled green space nested near the mostly African-American neighborhoods of Cannonborough and Radcliffeborough. That park is a prime cut of real estate on the downtown Charleston peninsula, where property values have risen steadily over the past decades because people want to live near the water.
But the developers can’t seem to shake a group of residents called Friends of Dereef Park, who want it to remain a park, and who want to preserve the civil rights history and heritage of the land. The resident group filed a lawsuit in 2013 challenging the validity of the housing-development contracts.
That, in part, is what prompted The Gathering at Morris Square LLC to countersue the Friends of Dereef Park earlier this year, charging the park’s neighbors with “slander of title” and “negligence” for jeopardizing the housing plans. A federal court dismissed that countersuit last week. The developers are moving ahead with building the housing anyway. And they’re doing so with the support of the city.
In 2011, Charleston’s then-director of planning, preservation, and sustainability Tim Keane (now Atlanta’s planning director, as of last Friday) told Charleston City Paper, "They aren't meant to be museum pieces, these neighborhoods. They're meant to be living, breathing, growing places. How do you do that if you don't provide new housing?"
The Friends of Dereef Park’s lawsuit isn’t about blocking housing, though. It’s about a community park that the city handed to housing developers without informing neighboring residents that the area is bound by contract to remain a park. And, as revealed through court documents, it’s about how city, state, and federal governments privileged private developers over community residents in land-use decisions.
It started in 1981, when Charleston drew down $52,055 from the National Park Service for the 1.5-acre parcel that would eventually become Dereef Park. It drew another $49,500 for the park in 1991, both grants from the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act (LWCFA), under which the city signed covenants stating that the land must be used exclusively for recreation. Under the act, Charleston could only make other use of that land if it created a proportional park space for residents elsewhere in the city.
While Charleston did do some landscaping and ornamented the DeReef Park site with playground equipment in the ‘90s, the park languished in disrepair for most of its existence, even as its neighbors complained. As the park’s custodian, Charleston was legally responsible for its upkeep under the conservation act. The city was also obligated to place a sign in the park identifying it as a LWCFA-funded project—like the way projects funded with 2009 federal stimulus funds carry American Recovery and Reinvestment Act signs. Those signs serve as indicators for the public that the projects have to abide by certain federal guidelines.
Instead of improving the park, the city handed it over to a company called Civitas, LLC to do it in 2003—a transfer that initially earned no quarrel from folks in the surrounding communities. Civitas planned to build some housing on the park land, but the memo of understanding between Charleston and the developer made no mention of the LWCFA covenants. The park was passed around to various consultants and developers over the ensuing years, under MOUs that also failed to mention the LWCFA rules governing its land use, according to the Friends of DeReef Park legal complaint.
Two things here: First, any transfer of ownership of the park needs clearance from the state’s Department of Parks, Recreation, and Tourism and the National Park Service, both of which are the LWCFA’s enforcers. Second, the neighboring communities have say in this as well. Before any final sales or arrangements, the city is supposed to give the public ample opportunities to provide meaningful input in these transactions.
The city abdicated its responsibilities on both counts, according to the complaint. The complaint notes an email exchange between a National Park Service official named Edwolyn Dooley-Higgins and the state over an environmental assessment of the DeReef Park land, required under LWCFA before any land-use conversion could take place. In November 2008, Dooley-Higgins found that converting part of the park space to residential use would have no significant impact on the land or communities. But just how that conclusion was reached is odd. Reads the complaint:
Dooley-Higgins made this finding “after careful and thorough review and consideration of the facts contained in the attached Environmental Assessment for the proposed project. No such Environmental Assessment appears in the administrative record, nor do the Defendants appear to have prepared one.
Meanwhile, developer plans for Dereef Park had changed significantly by this point—still without initial input from community members. The complaint states that on top of the missing environmental assessment, “the City appears to have relied on a cryptic, one-day notice in the Post and Courier newspaper as the exclusive means of informing the public of the conversion.”
Without a sign identifying the park as a federally protected LWCFA space and a proper public-hearings process, neighbors had no idea what the city’s obligations are under the covenants. And yet the National Park Service approved the transfer of ownership and the land-use conversions from recreational to residential anyway.
A few curious residents found out about the federal covenants on their own, while doing research on how they could purchase the land to preserve the park themselves. In 2012, Heather Templeton discovered the covenants after new developers presented to community members its plans, which included a larger residential housing footprint and smaller park space than the original proposal. Templeton and other neighbors who opposed the housing developer’s plans created Friends of DeReef Park to explore how they could better determine use of the land.
Through FOIAs and other investigative research, the Friends found information about the city’s original intentions for the space. A 1979 environmental assessment by the state said that a park was “the best use of this land as determined by various city studies,” and that it would “provide a much needed recreations space for a low-to-moderate income area.”
Throughout the 1990s, the bulk of the population in the communities surrounding DeReef Park were African Americans, though it’s a bit more integrated today. But African Americans have a historical stake in the land. The park is named after Joseph DeReef, a prominent black business leader in Charleston in the late 19th century, who once owned the property along with his brother. It’s home to an old “praise church” where black folks of various religious denominations congregated in the early 20th century. The city once obtained a $20,000 grant to refurbish that church, but did not.
Despite this, a consultant contracted by developers in 2003 found that the church “lacks architectural significane or historical significance.” This designation rankled groups including the College of Charleston’s Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture and the Cannonborough-Elliotborough Neighborhood Association, which have both submitted letters recognizing the historic role of the church as a communal space for black residents. These groups would like the space to be used more in tribute to the civil rights heritage that decorates DeReef Park’s history.
A letter from Mary Battle, public historian for the Avery Center, to the National Park Service about this states:
Organized historic preservation strategies to maintain prominent buildings and spaces in the city have long played a fruitful role in making history central to Charleston’s appeal … Unfortunately, until recently, these preservation and tourism representation strategies overwhelmingly marginalized the central role of African American history in this city.
The National Park Service has confessed in recent months that it could have demanded more due diligence on DeReef Park before allowing the city to sign it off to private developers. It’s currently in the process of a more rigorous review of the land, triggered by the Friends of DeReef Park lawsuit. It’s not the first time the NPS has upset black communities in Charleston. In 2011, it allowed a bunch of Civil War events that commemorated the Confederacy to take place in the city, which disturbed the local NAACP and many other black residents.
Charleston is also not unique when it comes to the Park Service failing to fulfill its responsibilities under the LWCFA program, as Michael J. Gelardi pointed out a Washington Law Review journal article in 2007:
In sum, illegal conversions are common despite strict conversion regulations and contractual provisions. Unapproved conversions and inadequate substitution of converted parks pose a serious challenge to the LWCF program. These illegal conversions often result in the loss of unique natural resources and may deprive the public of the recreational opportunities that the LWCF seeks to protect. While NPS has explicitly reserved the right to seek coercive remedies for illegal conversions, this right has not been adjudicated.
Today, developers have already placed a few houses up on the Dereef Park property, though the project as a whole is on stand still until the legal situation is resolved. The city at one point found another green space that it wanted to transfer the LWCFA green space covenants to, but the Park Service has declared the city’s alternative insufficient. So Dereef community residents are currently in the dark about the park’s fate.
The court is still deliberating on whether the city’s initial handing over of DeReef Park to housing developers was valid, pending NPS’s re-examination. Meanwhile, what this looks like is a black community and history being rendered invisible and invaluable in the name of building housing that Charleston doesn’t really need. The city was recently listed among the top five most overvalued housing markets in the nation, deemed unsustainable because the price of housing has far outpaced the growth of income.
The new homes on the former DeReef Park space range from $405,000 to $670,000. It will be interesting to see how the new neighbors will recognize the civil rights history their homes will be built upon.