With dust swirling behind them, teenagers chase a rolling soccer ball from net to net, bounding through swatches of grass as their coach peers in with a discerning eye. Beyond the goalposts, children dangle themselves from the playground equipment while a border collie/ golden retriever mix returns a toy to its owner, eager to fetch it again.

Old North Durham Park, a well-worn, city-owned green space located between Geer and Foster streets and Trinity Avenue, seems an odd site for a political battleground. But these 3.6 acres, home to the only public soccer field in downtown Durham, have been the subject of an intense community debate between El Kilombo Intergalático, the Central Park School for Children and the groups’ respective allies. At issue are the use of a scarce community resource, the people it should serve, the complexities of private involvement with a public good, and the changes that could threaten a tightly knit inner-city neighborhood.

Rooted in Old North Durham, El Kilombo is a nonprofit, volunteer-driven social center abutting the park that offers literacy classes and community space to low-income residents. The group, part of the recently formed Durham Coalition for Urban Justice, is led by academics and students who assert that the city is using a lack of funding for upgrades as an excuse to neglect the park.

El Kilombo also contends that outside forces are intentionally derailing the soccer field by painting the park as vacant, underused and blighted in an attempt to gentrify the neighborhood. “There’s an effort to change not just the mechanics of what’s in here, it’s the culture of this park, it’s who is comfortable in this park, how is it a center of community life and for whom?” says Vivian Wang, a volunteer at El Kilombo.

Across the park sits Central Park School for Children, a public charter school that moved into the Old National Guard Armory building in 2003, a decade after the city acquired the field. Developers Bob Chapman and Vicky Patton, a married couple who own other property bordering the park, are on the Central Park school board.

Central Park leaders have been trying to change park plans that would attract more park usersnot just soccer players and would meet the school’s needs, city correspondence shows. Since moving in, school leaders have hired a designer for $17,000 to craft their vision of the park and have donated $100,000 of playground equipment so the school’s 280 students can play in the park at recess. They’ve also unsuccessfully attempted to lease the park from the city for $10 per year for 10 years and to take over maintenance.

However, the school leaders have been unable to get enough buy-in for their vision, so they formed a loose group of peopleFriends of Old North Durham Parkmade up of several organizations, including the African American Dance Ensemble, Old North Durham Park and Duke Park neighborhood associations and El Centro, says John Heffernan, the Central Park School for Children director.

In October the Friends of Old North Durham Park presented its master plan, which promoted community gardens, a picnic shelter and trails, “a community urban oasis for play and learning,” but a smaller soccer field, to the City Council. The proposal was met with blowback from some residents who said they weren’t allowed input into the plan. The council instructed the Friends of Old North Durham Park to solicit more feedback before proceeding. The feedback meetings were highly contentious, as El Kilombo questioned why the Friends of Old North Durham Park was co-sponsoring the forums with the city.

Councilman Mike Woodard, who attended the latter two meetings, says he was “surprised” that the events were co-sponsored, given the history of controversy.

“The parks staff should have been impartial arbiters bringing together as many groups who want to come and have a say in it,” he said, adding that he has suggested that another meeting, sponsored only by Parks and Recreation, be held.

In 2005, the Durham City Council passed a resolution highlighting the lack of soccer fields in town; Durham has just 12, when 40 are needed to meet national standards for a city its size. The council also reasserted its plans to upgrade Old North Durham Park. The park has been included in two Capital Improvements Plans, first in 2001 and again in 2005, but the city has not funded any upgrades there, saying money was better spent in other parks.

The city had $700,000 from the sale of Erwin Field, which had been Durham’s only other urban soccer field, to build replacement fields, as had been promised. Instead, the money went to the city’s general fund. Now Parks and Recreation Assistant Director Beth Timson says the department has no money for capital improvements, and any upgrades would have to been done by private citizens or wait for the economy to improve.

Timson says a storm drainage problem made the Old North Durham project too costly. She estimates it would cost $300,000 to replace the pipes, which must be done before heavy equipment could be placed on the site.

But Heffernan says even if there is a soccer field shortage in the city, Old North Durham Park isn’t the best location for a full-size field. The field gets muddy because the city has not repaired the stormwater system. In addition, Heffernan says, a full-size soccer field would consume too much of the park.

A full-size soccer field300 feet by 200 feetwould take up 46.5 percent of the park. Timson says it would be scheduled for league play. Residents could use it when it wasn’t rented.

Heffernan says the Friends of Old North Durham Park plan, which offers a smaller, 240-foot-by-180-foot field, provides a compromise. “It’s not taking away a field; it’s actually providing a substantial field,” he says.”It also fulfills the other community need of people who don’t play soccer, the other 95 percent of the community that would just like to come out and use it for different things.”

Even by Central Park School for Children’s own neighborhood surveywhich El Kilombo challenges because it only interviewed six Latino residents, compared to 101 white respondentsnearly a third of community members listed soccer as a priority for the site.

For Woodard, who remains undecided on the park plan, the issue comes down to a “fairly simply question.” “We, parks and rec senior leadership and ultimately City Council need to decide, is a full-size soccer field appropriate there, or is there a better use?” he said.

Council is expected to take up the issue again, but a date has not been set.

Meanwhile regular pickup soccer groups can’t find space because construction on Duke’s campus creates a squeeze among intramural, club and varsity practices and games. Space will become tighter when summer camps begin.

Francisco Toledo coaches soccer at Old North Durham Park. His players range in age from 7 to 18 and play on four teams. He points to tire tracks left by maintenance vehicles in the muddy sidelines.”You can see how the city treats the field,” he says.

Yet this is the only place Toledo’s players can practice. He says he doesn’t know how the team would continue if it the space were altered. The soccer field also unites the community. “Soccer is one important part of this community, not only for physical activity but for social activity,” Toledo says in Spanish. “This is where our community knits its social fabric.”