Today local Charleston group Friends of DeReef Park filed suit challenging the loss of historic DeReef Park in the densely populated neighborhood of Cannonborough-Elliottborough. The lawsuit names the South Carolina Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism (SCPRT) and the National Park Service (NPS) as defendants, and alleges that the agencies violated federal law when they approved the City of Charleston’s plan to sell the Park to a private developer. The lawsuit asserts that restrictive covenants should have protected the Park and given the community a greater say in the transfer before it took place.
The City received federal funding through the Land & Water Conservation Fund Act to develop DeReef Park in the 1980s. In exchange, the City was required to accept federal covenants that protected the Park as a recreational space forever. But in 2003, the City entered into a deal to convey the Park to a private developer, Civitas, LLC. Five years later, the City sought state and federal approval to lift DeReef Park’s restrictive covenants and transfer them to a substitute property over a mile away. The City claimed that it had to transfer the covenants because it had already promised to convey a free and clear title for DeReef Park to Civitas.
Community members caught wind of the transfer last year and asked the City to find a local replacement park in the neighborhood. According to Friends of DeReef Park’s lawsuit, the current so-called replacement park – near a proposed cruise terminal – would not be an adequate substitute because it was already an existing park and is located in a tourist district 1.2 miles away by foot.
DeReef Park sits on the border of the historically African-American neighborhoods of Cannonborough and Elliotborough. Its namesake refers to the DeReef Brothers, successful black businessmen who lived and did business in the Radlcliffborough and Cannonborough area of Charleston in the 1800s. This community has served as a center of African American commercial and social activity since the late 1800’s. The Park’s southern boundary, Morris Street, features two Civil Rights sites of note: the Morris Brown Baptist Church, which served as the headquarters of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s hospital strike in 1969, and the former site of the Brooks Motel, which hosted leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Ralph Abernathy on their organizing visits to Charleston. The Park’s northern boundary abuts the Cannon Street YMCA, the proud home of the 1955 Cannon Street All-Stars, an all-black team of 12 year-olds that took the state Little League title after white teams refused to play them. DeReef Park features an African-American “praise house,” known as United Missionary Chapel, built in the early 1900’s.
The developer has moved the praise house to a corner of the property, where it sits boarded up. Friend of DeReef Park member and chairwoman, Heather Templeton said that the group’s members would love for the site to be restored to its former .84 acres of parkland, but if that is not is possible, the group is eager to participate in the search for a proper replacement park. Templeton said the lawsuit was a last resort for an area that has been repeatedly recognized as lacking adequate park space. “They chopped a historic park into pieces and want to replace it with a site over one mile away where there are already lots of parks. Families in the area want their history and their right to a recreational park respected and restored.”
Friends of DeReef Park is represented by local counsel Davis Whitfield-Cargile of McDougall LawFirm, LLC, and the Institute for Public Representation (IPR), a public interest law firm and clinical education program established at Georgetown University Law Center in 1971. Attorneys at IPR function as counsel for groups and individuals who are unable to obtain effective legal representation on matters including those involving the environment.
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