Land Use

People vs. pets? Plans for 11 city dog parks draw growls from some owners

Dog owners sitting on homemade benches and ragtag chairs in Mickey Markey Park earlier this week bemoaned that an imminent $500,000 redesign of the Bywater park will not include an off-leash dog area. Denise Caballero shook her head as she watched her pit bull Scout jump and snort and dig holes with two other mutts. “I think it’s terrible,” she said. “If you live in New Orleans, you know that we really don’t have yards.”

The overhaul, initially scheduled to begin on Monday, has been put off for a month or so, until lead contamination of the site has been dealt with. But that will be it for the de facto dog run that has been an unofficial feature of the popular neighborhood park for a decade or so.

The city, through mayoral spokesman C. Hayne Rainey, said that dog owners will soon be able to gather at a nearby off-leash area within the riverfront park now under construction and slated to open this spring.

Dog lovers are skeptical. Few believe that the riverside dog run will actually materialize. If it does, it looks so small on the maps that it may not work, they say.

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Vic Richard, head of the New Orleans Recreation Development Commission, owns a Pomeranian named Roofus and calls himself a lifelong dog lover. But he’s always made clear that “animals will not supersede humans” on the properties he runs, he said.

Richard also emphasizes that no NORD property, including Markey Park, has ever been a legal off-leash dog area. When dogs are off leash, people feel threatened, he said, citing phone calls he’s gotten, including one about a man in a wheelchair who was bitten. A few years ago after Markey Park’s Mirliton Festival, a clean-up crew couldn’t work because a few people refused to put their dogs back on leashes, Richard said.

A recent neighborhood survey found that two of the top three reasons people didn’t use Markey Park were dog droppings (44 percent) and dogs off leash (31 percent).

Then there was the time, about a year ago, when children were playing in the dog park and dog owners called police to make them leave. “That got a few people upset,” said Susan Brady, a board member for the New St. Claude Association of Neighbors (N-SCAN), which covers the part of Bywater between St. Claude to Claiborne avenues.

While most dog owners are cooperative and pick up after their dogs, those who aren’t are “a blemish” on others,” Richard said.

Dogs tussle at Mickey Markey Park, but not for long.

Katy Reckdahl

Dog owners Casey Coren and Heidi Tullman watch Tullman's dogs tussle at Mickey Markey Park, which is not included in the city's plans for off-leash dog parks.

But Richard acknowledges the passion the issue has inspired. He recalls a meeting last year at Holy Angels Convent about Markey Park’s redesign. It got so heated that a nun had to take the microphone and calm the crowd, he said.

Over the past week, as word spread that the re-designed Markey Park would not include an off-leash area, dog owners mobilized. They set up a Facebook page to save the dog park, recruited people to create pro-dog sidewalk chalk drawings outside the park, and launched an online petition in support of their contention that “overwhelmingly, the neighborhood wants part of the park to remain an off-leash dog park.”

Salvos also were launched by fans of the park redesign. “Markey Park cannot ‘remain’ a dog park, because it is not, in fact, a dog park,” said a Bywater Neighborhood Association statement released Tuesday night. Municipal law requires dogs to be on leashes at all times, unless they’re in the city’s sole licensed off-leash area, the non-profit-operated City Bark in City Park, the statement said.

Dog owner Julie Jones, who has participated in numerous meetings on the issue, said there is wide support for having spaces where canines can run free. The decision by Trust for Public Land to exclude Markey from the list of those spaces disregarded hours of footwork and trips to City Hall by dog owners, she said. “It’s death by charrette,” Jones declared. “Death by task force.”

“They are correct, to a certain extent,” Richard said, noting that one of the early drafts for the park did include an off-leash area. “People feel that way because they didn’t get what they wanted.”

Eleven dog parks planned

When Miles Swanson and his dog Huey visit Cabrini Playground in the French Quarter, he hears that a crackdown on dogs is also imminent there. Soon, Richard confirmed, a children’s playground will be added to the park. And soon after that, dog owners will be ousted from Cabrini and directed to a new off-leash run a few blocks away.

The new run, part of the former St. Aloysius High School site on Esplanade Avenue at  Rampart Street, is one of the 11 sites where the city plans to create fenced, off-leash dog areas. The plan calls for creation of two such dog parks in each City Council district, with an extra one in District C’s Algiers Point neighborhood across the river, Rainey said.

The site selection was based on the work of a Citizens Advisory Task Force on Dogs in Parks, Rainey said. At first, the list of 19 proposed off-leash sites included unofficial dog runs like Cabrini Playground and Markey and Wisner parks. The development commission reviewed the 19 sites and narrowed the list to 11, Rainey said.

All were included in a request to the City Planning Commission, which makes recommendations to the City Council for consideration in the city’s capital budget. But with money tight, and many other projects vying for the commission’s imprimatur, the new dog parks were ranked last out of 27 submitted projects and none made the cut this year. The riverfront dog run is already under construction and will not be affected by funding issues, Rainey said.

Richard hopes to see the dog parks funded in future budget cycles. “We really want those needs to be met,” he said.

Once the new dog parks are established, enforcement will become an issue. Asked if,  after years of lax enforcement, there would be mass ticketings of people still running their dogs in former haunts like Markey and Cabrini, Richard said, “I’m not a crackdown-type person, but we’re going to ask people to abide by the law.”

Richard looks at the issue from a citywide perspective. That the dog parks weren’t funded affects some neighborhoods much more than others. “Certain parts of the city could care less about a dog,” he said. “The Lower 9 and New Orleans East, they really didn’t care about having a dog park or a designated area for dogs.” The push for dog parks is really confined to those who live in the areas near the river, he said.

Resource-strapped cities across the nation are seeing the same dog-park trend – and similar conflicts. The tension is reflected in the title of a recent report issued by The Trust for Public Land: “Creating Dog Parks Without Rancor.” The report calls dog parks “the hottest new city park issue to hit America.”

A USA Today piece about the report calculated that while parks overall had increased by 3 percent in five years, dog parks had increased by 34 percent in a nation where households of dog owners (43 million) now surpassed those with children (38 million).

A national public-parks roundtable last year also found that “(in) some cities, the need for playgrounds is on the decline, while the need for dog parks is on the rise.”

According to 2010 U.S. Census data, in the area commonly referred to as the Bywater—the section bordered by Chartres, Kentucky and Press streets, and St. Claude Avenue — 81 percent of residents are between the ages of 18 and 64. Only 9 percent are under 18. But Markey Park is supposed to serve “the original Bywater,” which runs all the way past St. Claude to Claiborne Avenue, said Bywater Neighborhood Association board member Lisanne Brown, who conducted the Parks and Recreation Department survey of the neighborhood in 2010 and was elected to the board the following year.

In the “original Bywater” area 26 percent are children. Brown, who now chairs the neighborhood association’s Parks and Recreation Committee and has worked in public health all her adult life, said that, like Richard, she believes public spaces should be created for people of all ages and for dog owners – but with priority given to people. “I’m not anti-dog, but people come first.”

A search for balance

A casual Markey Park visitor might conclude that Bywater has prioritized dogs to a ridiculous level. The grassy off-leash area, with its mudpit, freshly dug holes, and scattered plastic chairs, takes up roughly two-thirds of the land.

The dogs run within the ragged fenceline of what was once a baseball diamond. Dedicated in the 1970s, the field reverted to greenspace within a decade as the New Orleans Recreation Department stopped operating programs there, partly because foul balls ricocheted off nearby houses on a regular basis, neighbors said.

The park declined to the point where dog owners were removing hypodermic needles and condoms on a regular basis, said dog owner Randi Kaufman, who has been bringing her dogs to the park for a decade. After Hurricane Katrina, when no one from the city was mowing the park, she and other park regulars pooled their money to buy a riding lawn mower and cut the grass themselves. When neighbor Erica Knott spearheaded an effort to put new equipment in the rusted, decrepit playground, Kaufman helped her apply for funding from Allstate, which donated a playground that Knott, Kaufman and other neighbors helped to install.

Others who use the dog run built fence-mounted bag dispensers for people who have forgotten to bring their own poop-scooping bags. On a recent evening, Kaufman knew nearly a dozen dogs by name: Peanut, Paloma, Bernie, Jolie, Marx, Lorelei, Thelonius, Penny Lane and Claire. She said the park is where she comes every night after work to unwind. “I think dog parks are really great for people, not just dogs,” she said.

The almost-constant presence of dogs at the park makes it safer, said Linda Love, who comes there with Micah, her Doberman. Swapping information about recent burglaries and hold-ups spreads the word and makes the Bywater safer, she said.

So when the park redesign meetings were announced, Kaufman, who works in public health, made copies of meeting notices and distributed them far and wide. “Because that’s how you do it,” she said. The resulting turnout was “huge.” Dog owners didn’t argue for their current share of the park; they agreed that a lot of the space should be for kids and another part for people who had neither dogs nor kids.

At public meetings, some argued that everyone can get along in open, mixed-use spaces. Kaufman said she and others agreed with the neighborhood association that, because of sanitation concerns, any space used as a dog run precludes its use by children.

Kaufman was stunned by how things turned out. “You put your heart and soul into trying to make things better and making it fair. You get engaged.” And then none of it seemed to matter. “I’m going to miss it a lot,” she said of Markey Park’s days as a dog run.

Brady, the N-SCAN member, said she believes that Markey Park is the center of controversy only because, after Katrina, there was nowhere else to go. She’s lived in the neighborhood for 40 years, she said, and she believes that once Stallings Center on St. Claude Avenue is back up and running – a groundbreaking is scheduled in the next few months — people will have other options. That will alleviate some of the pressures from people descending on the park, she said.

Dogs may be another matter. Since Katrina, Brady has seen an influx of new neighbors, many of them with pets. “I’m getting used to seeing people with dogs up and down St. Claude,” she said.

Betty Lilley is a dog owner from Faubourg Marigny who regularly brings her dogs to run in Markey Park, while the two-year-old child she babysits enjoys the fenced playground.  The new plan doesn’t bother her. “You want to do what’s right for the neighborhood,” she said. “So I can’t say that I’m against it.”

But Lilley acknowledges that her brand of neutrality is in short supply when it comes to Markey Park’s future. She’s watched the neighborhood change a lot since Katrina. Maybe this conflict is part of that, she said — “growing pains.”

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  • “The lady doth protest too much, methinks” — just bring your dogs to Markey’s Park as always (pick up their mess, keep them away from kids, etc.)…. Local police have enough real work on their hands to be bothered with cranky old folks’ problems over dogs.

  • I appreciate this article, however, it makes it sound like there is no plan for an off-leash area at MMP due to budgetary constraints, when there is upwards of a $500K grant from the Tust for Public Land slated for this project. When the neighborhood association is largely developers, and there is little transparency and this much money at stake, one begins to wonder…Those of us who support continuing to have an off-leash area as *part* of Markey Park think it would be awfully easy of them to go with one of the plans that includes a dog-area, but it seems someone with some sway doesn’t want it that way.

  • Randi Kaufman

    Some additional information. Among all respondents to three neighborhood surveys, the most desired and current use of the Markey Park are dog-related. TPL created a follow up design that would allow the easy addition of a dog park in the future that also was not approved. Bywater has a great number of recreational space available or in the works for people: Markey Park, Clouet Gardens, Stallings, and riverfront.

  • kibbles

    why is the BNA so disjointed from the real desires of its residents? i hear that the board is comprised of developers like She Embry and the like…why havent average joes risen to take back their board and association?

  • When I first moved to the Bywater, Markey Park was a dive.
    Today, thirteen years later, it still is. Park improvements are LONG overdue.
    With that said, given the choice between a beautiful site admired primarily
    from the street and an eyesore used and enjoyed by both people AND dogs, I’d
    definitely chose the latter.

  • BigAl1825

    I’m a dog lover. But the number of times I have stepped in s*** in this city is disgusting. Just yesterday I walked by a pile right in the middle of a sidewalk. When I walked by it again later that day it was smeared across the sidewalk, having ruined someone’s day.

    We might get better dog facilities in this city if we had better dog owners. It sounds like Bywater residents want Markey Park to be a free-for-all (like much of the Bywater). Sorry, we have laws here.

    Now if police would just enforce them.

  • It’s important to remember that this is not a people vs. dogs issue. Both NORD CEO Vic Richards and Lisanne Brown from the Bywater Neighborhood Association have trumpeted “people come first” and argued that Markey Park has never been an (official) dog park. Not only is this an empty “because I said so” argument, but distracts readers from the fact that the people want two areas for humans and one for dogs. This was evident when the Trust for Public Land approached the neighborhood and asked what the residents wanted to have included in the re-design of Markey Park.

    The 3 surveys done in the Bywater all came back in favor of redeveloping the park to include a designated fenced-in
    off-leash dog area. This would be in addition to the space for children and the common space. Including a separate space for children and for dogs in no way puts dogs before humans. If anything, a fenced-in dog area gives humans an opportunity to visit the park without having to interact with dogs. This is safer for children and dogs.

    NORDC disregarded the community’s input and rejected the 3 proposals. Portraying the re-development as an either-or situation is inaccurate when there is no reason the TPL or community should have to choose between kids and dogs.

    The BNA is getting 200,000 to re-develop Markey Park, and board members stated they had little plans to redevelop the playground (the board discussed moving parallel bars). The new plans for Markey Park show no effort to put the needs of children first.

    I attended a sign-making demonstration at Markey Park on Sunday. Around 40 adults and 10 children (and nearly as many dogs) were present. Advocates for an off-leash dog area circulated The Humane Society of the United States’ guide to dog parks and brought plastic bags to clean up waste in Markey Park. It’s obvious the community is invested in having a park that is a clean and friendly place for both dogs and children.

    I also attended the Feb 27 BNA meeting at which the TPL rep stated the order to not include an off-leash dog area came from Judy Reese Morse.

    The blatant disregard for community input could happen anywhere in the city, and hopefully media covering this issue will focus on figuring out who is responsible for changing the plan that included an off-leash dog area, instead of repeating a “humans versus dogs” statement that has no merit.

    I made a timeline based on NORDC, BNA, and CATF minutes here:

    Questions I still have:

    1. What is the BNA going to do with the 200,000 it is receiving for the park?

    2. Where was the Feb 25 closing of Markey Park first announced and by whom?

    3. What was the chain of command and that led to the notice about Markey Park closing Feb 25? What specific organizations and representatives of organizations were involved?

    4. Who made the decision to not include off-leash dog area in Markey Park? (2011 letter from BNA Board and statement from Trust for Public Land Rep at Feb 27 meeting contradict one another.)

    5. Why are the April 2012 minutes not available on the NORD section of the city website?

    6. Why is city’s sole licensed off-leash area the non-profit-operated City Bark in City Park?

    NORDC and the BNA need to be more transparent.

  • It would be so easy and so inexpensive to divide MMP into two portions using a chain link fence, with dogs allowed off leash in the smaller portion and the rest of the park reserved for people only. With half a million bucks you’d think they could find the 5k (or less) dollars to do this. The fact that they aren’t clearly isn’t a financially driven decision, but the result of something else.