Dereef Park is not the same place it was in 2002. Back then, the tree-shaded clearing between Morris and Cannon streets was a notorious haunt for alcoholics and heroin addicts, not the family-friendly enclave it is today.

“At one point, it was a questionable place,” says Elliott Dobson. She moved into a house just around the corner from the park in 2002. That was also the year when the City of Charleston gave a developer the go-ahead to build on the lot where the park’s grassy field and playground stand.

Back then, few people would have missed the park if a house had fallen from the sky and squashed it like a wicked witch. As recently as 2006, a woman was found murdered there. But in July 2011, when a developer finally took steps toward building on the property, over 200 residents from Cannonborough, Elliotborough, and Radcliffeborough signed a petition urging the city to halt development plans. Speaking before City Council on July 19, some lamented the loss of a rare green space, which the adjacent Cannon Street YMCA uses for outdoor activities. Others said the redevelopment of the park would spell the loss of an African-American heritage site, especially if an old unlabeled church building on its premises is torn down or repurposed. Still others, Dobson included, said they were concerned that new housing would attract rowdy college students to the neighborhood.

There was only one problem with the neighbors’ protests: They were nine years too late.

The city entered into a Memorandum of Understanding with the Smith-Morris Company in 2002, and as the city sold its portions of the park over the following years, it went from being public property to private property. The land is about to be sold again to Riverside Capital LLC, but the residential zoning will remain the same. In other words, Riverside Capital has no legal obligation to answer the petition.

Tim Keane, Charleston’s director of planning, preservation, and sustainability, says that nearly a decade out from the original agreement, the housing project still fits within the city’s vision for more affordable in-fill housing.

“They aren’t meant to be museum pieces, these neighborhoods,” Keane says. “They’re meant to be living, breathing, growing places. How do you do that if you don’t provide new housing?”

At the July 19 Charleston City Council meeting, David Bouffard was the first person to speak up about Dereef Park. He asked that the Council reject the latest batch of technical amendments to the Memorandum of Understanding, which is the document that initially outlined the conditions for development on the site. The amendments passed.

Bouffard knows he doesn’t have the legal leverage to halt development of the park, but that hasn’t stopped him from trying.

“Hopefully, if we fight this in the court of public appeal,” he says, “the developer will see the value of community input in the design process.”

Bouffard is the co-owner of Sugar Bakeshop on Cannon Street, which backs up to Dereef Park. Next door, at the Cannon Street YMCA, President Paul Stoney says he would have fought to keep the park from being sold if he had been in the neighborhood at the time. What now bothers Stoney, who came to Charleston from a YMCA job in Miami in 2006, is the lack of communication on the part of the developer.

“I’ve not been approached by any of the developers with, ‘What would you like to see happen with the space adjacent to your property?'” Stoney says. “Are they of the opinion that it’s easier to beg forgiveness?”

In addition to using the park for recreation, Stoney says the YMCA would benefit from having a driveway around back where parents could pick up and drop off their kids rather than stopping in traffic on Cannon Street. The Y had owned a slice of the Dereef Park property since before the 1970s, but a previous president sold it under financial distress in 2004, forfeiting any claim the organization had on the land.

Before he gets started talking about Dereef Park, Stoney steps next door to grab Bill Bowick, who co-owns Sugar with Bouffard. Stoney and Bowick are of like minds about the park’s future, but Bowick tends to speak more diplomatically. Bowick worked as an architect in New York City for 15 years before moving to London for a year, then to Charleston in 2004.

The one positive outcome of the City Council meeting for Dereef Park defenders was that Councilman James Lewis Jr. asked that neighborhood residents be involved in the design process. Riverside Capital is already obligated to submit its plans to the Board of Architectural Review, where residents can weigh in on design technicalities, but by that point it is too late to question issues of housing density or building placement.

While Lewis’ request was a sympathetic gesture, for now “it’s just blind trust that they’ll involve the neighborhood,” Bowick says.

Back in 2002, when Smith-Morris hammered out an agreement with the city for how to use the land, developers did speak to people in the neighborhood — and they were in favor of development, says Keane.

“Not everyone likes the plan today like they did in 2002, but it’s only so much you can do,” he says.

The soon-to-be-built housing is Phase 2 of what is called the Morris Square subdivision. Phase 1, completed in July 2008 by I’On developer Vince Graham, is a mix of 32 houses, townhouses, and condominiums on the south side of Morris Street. Part of the developer’s agreement with the city stipulated that public parks be built in both phases; the Phase 1 park is an unadorned patch of grass directly across the street from Dereef. When Phase 2 is built, Riverside Capital will give the city $20,000 to install playground equipment in the considerably smaller park.

There will still be a park, in other words.

In its current incarnation, Dereef Park is a little overgrown, its metal playground a little outdated. When it rains, the parking lot floods badly. To one side of the park sits a small church building, its windows boarded and its white exterior paint bearing gray imperfections where someone has scrubbed off graffiti.

The park itself has a definite link to African-American history: It is the namesake of the family of Richard Edward Dereef, one of 19th-century Charleston’s wealthiest free black men. What is less clear is the provenance of the dilapidated church house on its property.

Some of the Dereef Park defenders, including Stoney and Bowick, hold that a praise church might have met there. Praise churches were non-denominational African-American congregations that sprang up in the years after the Civil War, often in rural areas like Johns Island.

Nick Butler, an archivist at the Charleston County Public Library, says fire insurance maps indicate that the building was built at some point between 1884 and 1902, but he cannot say for certain whether it started out as a church or a house.

“If that building on Dereef Court was in fact a praise house, that would in fact be a pretty significant artifact of that community,” Butler says.

Robert Gurley, associate director of the Preservation Society of Charleston, says that he does not know the church’s origin, but that the building is “becoming high on our radar screen.” Delores Whaley, who attends Shiloh AME Church directly next to Dereef Park, says she had heard the building was used by small churches over the years, but she did not know which ones.

Under the Memorandum of Understanding, Riverside is not allowed to tear down the church. But the company doesn’t have to leave it in its current state, either. Josh Martin, a former city planning director who is working as an urban planning and design consultant for Riverside, says the company has the option of either renovating the building for public use or converting it into a residential unit.

“We want to work with the neighborhood as much as we can,” Martin says, “but understanding that we’re going to work under the parameters that we have with the zoning laws as well.”

The real bone of contention for some people near Dereef Park is that new housing might be designed to attract more College of Charleston students. For this reason, Elliott Dobson says she will move away from the neighborhood if Phase 2 is built.

Over the years, Dobson has witnessed a series of college-age renters cycling through the Corinne Street houses that back up to her property. Her complaints are common ones about college kids: late-night get-togethers in the middle of the week, beer cans and lit cigarettes being dropped into her garden from overlooking balconies, “vomiting off porches, the whole party thing.”

Dobson is herself a graduate student, and she does not want to demonize all college students. But when the Corinne Street houses were built, she says developers told her they would be marketed toward families, not young, unattached renters.

“We were told everything that they’re saying about Morris Square Phase 2,” Dobson says.

Martin says Riverside has not yet decided what sort of housing will go up in Dereef Park. “We’re not intentionally marketing to one type of user,” he says. Besides, he adds, there is no single floor plan or price range that will appeal universally to students.

Keane says he has heard stories of impending student invasion before.

“You would think from the concerns we get about students that we now have a college of 50- or 60-thousand students,” he says. The College of Charleston has an undergraduate enrollment of about 10,000 that has not risen significantly in recent years. “Every time that you have any houses built anywhere, the lament of college students coming to the neighborhood is one we hear.”

For opponents of the park’s development, one victory came in May, when Riverside asked the city planning commission to allow an increase in density for the planned housing units. The commission denied the request after residents spoke out against it. As it stands, zoning allows the company no more than 39 residential units on the property. And there will still be a park. And the church building will not be bulldozed.

Still, to the 200-plus petition signers, Morris Square Phase 2 is bad news. Martin says the developer hopes to get its plans approved by the Board of Architectural Review this fall; no date has been set for construction. In the meantime, the park’s defenders will fight their battle in the fields of public opinion. Bowick has printed posters that read “SAVE DEREEF PARK” in a heavily serifed font reminiscent of wanted posters from the Old West. Below the text is an idyllic painting of a cleaned-up Dereef Park with children playing in the grass, painted by local artist Lori Starnes Isom. Even if it turns out Bowick has entered the ring too late to stop the development, he will go down swinging.

Dobson remembers the days when thieves prowled around the neighborhood and people sold drugs on Jasper Street. She says she and her neighbors have worked with police to clean up the streets. The ones who have stuck around are tenacious types, she says.

“We’re the type of people who care about a park.”

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