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All bark, no park: what happened to plans for dog parks in New Orleans? 

Four years after the city revealed plans to build 20 off-leash dog parks, owners are howling

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Photo by Cheryl Gerber

Roscoe panics as I open the gate to the Crescent Park dog run.
It's hard to blame him: five other dogs, excited for a new butt to sniff, are trying to force their way through the opening. Roscoe backs up on his leash, slipping his collar over his ears. I try to gently knee the pack back into the park while hooking my foot around Roscoe's furry butt to guide him into the park.

  Such is the routine at Crescent Park, which stretches along the levee from the Bywater to the old wharvage around Elysian Fields. But Blake Vonder Haar, proprietor of the Bywater-area pet store Bark Market, says the problems with the Crescent Park dog run are many: no double gate, benches located near the entrance tend to cause dogs to congregate there, poor drainage results in a swamp after rainfall, and the doggie drinking fountain is located outside the gate, which she calls "absurd."

  The Crescent Park run, in tandem with a slightly larger dog run in Wisner Park, are the only "official" off-leash parks in New Orleans that are free for public use. (City Bark, located in New Orleans City Park, is a fee-based off-leash dog area that charges members $48 per year.) That number is a far cry from the results of a 2012 study by the New Orleans Recreation Development Commission (NORDC), the department tasked with developing and administering parks in the city, which recommended upwards of 20 dog areas to be built throughout the parish.

  Now, four years later, pet owners and residents say the city promised much and delivered little, and in some cases have taken downright hostile stances — including hiring an armed guard to ensure dogs stayed leashed at Cabrini Park, which long had been an "unofficial" off-leash area.

Two parks in particular have been the sources of ire for local dog owners: Mickey Markey Park in the Bywater and Cabrini Park on Barracks Street in the French Quarter.

  For years, Mickey Markey was used as an off-leash area by pet owners but, after the park was closed for two years for lead contamination in the soil, the Trust for Public Land, a national nonprofit concerned with preserving and restoring public spaces, stepped up with the funds to amend the soil and redesign the park.

  Residents (including a group that had purchased a riding lawnmower for the park) say they expected a fenced-off dog area, but were surprised by the final design, which included no such thing.

  Randi Kaufmann says she was part of a group of residents who pitched in on the lawnmower and helped pick up trash at Mickey Markey Park. She described it as the "center" of the community for many years, and said she and others felt betrayed when a dog area wasn't included in the redesign.

  "I can't tell you how much less I like Bywater without the dog park," Kaufman wrote in an email. "It was so well used. People gathered there all day. We contributed to the safety of the neighborhood. The park was derelict for many years and a haven for drug use before it became popular with dog owners. ... It was such a great, healthy way to build community and bring people together."

  Kaufmann said the nonprofit that helped remediate and redesign Mickey Markey wasn't opposed to a dog park, but that it was the Bywater Neighborhood Association, together with NORDC, who nixed the idea.

  They had no idea the neighborhood even wanted [an off-leash dog area] until we all showed up at their public meeting," Kaufmann said. "They even came up with several multi-use designs at the next meeting. After that we never had another public meeting and were told it was off the table."

  Kaufmann added that many residents tried to make the best of it and simply take their pooches to another longstanding-but-unofficial dog area: Cabrini Park.

  "Lo and behold, same story," said Kaufmann. "Big park that could easily be multi-use including an off-leash dog area, but was not included regardless of how much public input went into [it]."

  Another resident (who did not want his name used) said that much of the trouble pet owners found at Cabrini began after new, wealthy neighbors began making a fuss about the off-leash animals. The man said problems began in 2014 with verbal confrontations and escalated with calls to the New Orleans Police Department's 8th Division. Eventually, the park was locked for eight months of renovations.

  When it reopened, it was as a children's playground.

  "We had five chairs stacked neatly and chained under the pavilion," the man said. "NORDC came in, cut the chains and confiscated the chairs. We are not allowed to have permanent seating (unlike other NORDC parks) and have to bring chairs with us, and take them with us when we leave. Older and handicapped people are therefore unable to use the park."

  The Cabrini conflict culminated with the hiring of an armed security guard by NORDC officials. The guard patrolled the area in an effort to keep dogs at bay (or at least securely leashed), but while multiple residents said they witnessed inappropriate behavior by the guard, all but one requested they remain anonymous.

  Hayne Rainey, Mayor Mitch Landrieu's press secretary, confirmed in an email that NORDC "assigned a contracted security detail" to Cabrini Park for December 2015 and January 2016, saying the hire was "in response to multiple resident complaints of individuals disregarding posted signage declaring that all dogs must remain on-leash in Cabrini Park."

  Cabrini-area resident Steve Schmidt said that his encounters with the guard were anything but professional, saying the guard was prone to getting into loud verbal altercations with neighbors and "fiddling" with his gun.

  "He and one of the neighbors got into it and I heard both of them yelling at each other, but she's an older lady so I went out there and was like, 'Yeah, I understand what you're out here for, but you can't be yelling at my neighbors like that,'" Schmidt said. "And then we got into a verbal dispute over his authority in the park and, while I was talking, he kept touching his gun and being very intimidating."

click to enlarge PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER
  • Photo by Cheryl Gerber

  Schmidt says the guard often would park illegally, blocking residents' driveways and even parking on the sidewalk. He called the police and contacted NORDC, but had a difficult time figuring out who had contracted the guard in the first place.

  "There's an armed guard in the park, and I was concerned because I didn't know the legalities — it's a gun-free zone — whether or not a security guard had the right to be carrying a gun," he said. "This individual strikes me as the kind who couldn't quite make it with the police department."

  Others who attended meetings said Vic Richard, the CEO of NORDC, had told them NORD was paying for it.

  "It was awkward, because Bunny Friend (Park, in the 9th Ward) had 17 people shot two weeks before they put a guard at Cabrini," said Schmidt. "And so my concern was, why not put security in Bunny Friend Park, when you're putting security guards in one of the safest parks in the city?"

  Rainey said there is an exception to firearm-free zones for law enforcement, and noted, "The shooting incident at Bunny Friend was during a non-permitted event and no NORDC personnel or security were present."

  Schmidt objects to the guard on principle. "If you're going to increase security at any parks, it should be parks in disadvantaged neighborhoods," he said. "Not a park that has an issue with dogs being off leash."

The city of New Orleans says there never was a promise to build the parks recommended in the 2012 study by any kind of deadline.

  "There was never a hard timeline that I am aware of to build all 20 parks," Richard told Gambit. He added that NORDC's mission is to serve the people's needs first, and that much of the city's mission is to get parks and facilities still in their "post-Katrina" states back online for children and residents.

  "It's not that dog parks are not a priority," he said, but that the scaling up on parks spending under Mayor Landrieu's administration has been significant, and targeted at bringing damaged and obsolete facilities back online. "We've invested $157 million. We've gone from three recreation centers to 11, with a twelfth under construction," Richard said. "Much of our goal was to bring back what was lost in the storms, to bring those centers back to the community."

  Richard acknowledged hiring the security guard, but said it was a move to protect the renovations that the city and neighbors had made to the park during the eight months it was closed. He said he wasn't aware of any complaints about the private security, and that it was a necessary measure to protect the grounds from damage. "Are you aware there's a quarter-million (dollar) investment we made out there?" he said. "The parents and the school (McDonogh 15, which owns a portion of the park's ground) raised over $100,000 to remediate lead, lay down turf, and build new play equipment, and the city put up another $100,000 for repairs to masonry and wrought-iron fencing, the new playground's safety surface, equipment and a water fountain.

  "And unfortunately, the pet owners — not all of them, but a lot of them — let their dogs tear up the entire field and everything else."

That's not to say that there's been no progress with dog parks. Two are on the table: a small area in the Leo Benewell Playspot at Tchoupitoulas and Pleasant streets near the Irish Channel, and the long-contested Cabrini Park site. NORDC and Capital Projects are assessing the feasibility of both builds; however, there's still no timeline, and while there's been about $100,000 appropriated for the Leo Benewell site, Richard said that there's no funding for the dog area at Cabrini Park, although the city plans to look to the residents to help secure the funds.

  "And as funding becomes available and community interest matches or meets the study that was done, we'd be more than happy to work with individuals or groups towards resolution," he said.

  As far as deficiencies at Crescent Park's dog run, city officials say former Mayor Ray Nagin's administration is responsible for the failings there, and point to the run at Wisner Park as an exemplar of the design features to be expected at dog parks in the future.

  Rainey noted both he and Richard were pet owners and stressed that they do ask the public to follow leash laws.

  "Vic [Richard] has informed me of a number of instances where children have been bitten by loose pets," he said. "We want to stress that pets, while in the facilities, need to be under control of their owners at all times.

  Despite the petitions, Rainey said pro-dog park enthusiasts were notably absent from all six of the Mayor's recent Budgeting for Outcomes meetings, where citizens can interact with all levels of city government regarding facilities that need updating or repair.

  "They're well-known, well- publicized meetings where citizens can talk about the facilities that they feel need the most urgent work, or most need to be built," he said.

  Where does that leave Roscoe? The woes at the Crescent Park dog run were inherited from the Nagin administration and It is no longer under NORDC jurisdiction — so a new gate doesn't seem to be on the horizon.

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