In December 2013, the city of New Orleans announced the opening of the Wisner Playground Dog Run, the first free, official place for dogs to play without a leash in the city limits — created with a maze of new fencing between the park's existing softball field, basketball courts and playgrounds.
"This is something that people in the neighborhood have been waiting for for a very long time," said Sam Winston of the Friends of Wisner Park. "People are just thrilled."
Though Uptown dog owners and neighborhood residents cheer having an officially sanctioned place for pooches to romp, it represents a significant departure from a much more ambitious plan discussed at public forums throughout the city in 2012. Back then, the city discussed building as many as 20 new dog parks and dog runs on vacant land across the city. Instead, city officials are now evaluating new spaces for dogs to get off-leash exercise on a case-by-case basis, and Wisner may represent the new model for the future of how dogs, their owners and other parkgoers play together — and use public land — in New Orleans.
Dogs and parks have created some epic clashes around the city. Markey Park in Bywater has been the focus of pitched discussions over its use as an unofficial dog park, and neighbors around Coliseum Square regularly ask the New Orleans Police Department to ticket dog owners who let their dogs off the leash in that park. (Police generally respond that the city leash laws are more appropriately enforced against negligent owners, not otherwise law-abiding citizens trying to give their pets some exercise.) New Orleans' leash law stipulates that dogs must be on a leash when in public except at official dog parks.
Jim McAlister, a dog owner and president of the Coliseum Square Association, frequently has to preside over clashing opinions even within the association about how to handle all the dogs in the park. Meanwhile, he said, he regularly fields inquiries from couples seeking to hold their weddings in the park, and he said he cautions them about how much dogs and their messes are likely to be a part of the ceremony.
The dogs in Coliseum Square, he said, come from all over the city.
"I've seen them drive up, open the doors and let the dogs out. That's a very common occurrence," McAlister said. "If it was just the neighborhood dogs, it wouldn't be so bad."
Even Wisner Park started off as a struggle, said Vic Richard, CEO of the New Orleans Recreation Development (NORD) Commission. In one case, Richard remembers sending crews out to prepare the field for an upcoming softball season, then finding it so torn up by dogs two days later that the work had to be redone. And when the workers first arrived, they had to call the police to help clear the park of unleashed dogs so they could work, Richard said.
"It was ugly at first," Richard said. "It was really ugly."
Technically, New Orleans has had one dog park since the 2010 opening of "City Bark" at New Orleans City Park. That facility is fee-based, however, not a completely public space. In spring 2012, the city's capital projects department and NORD began hosting public meetings around the city with the idea of finding locations for two new dog parks (areas larger than an acre) and two new dog runs (smaller than an acre) in each of the five City Council districts.
City officials were looking for land that met certain criteria, they said at the time. They wanted prospective dog parks to be vacant and publicly owned by entities such as the Housing Authority of New Orleans and near areas already being used by the public as unofficial, unsanctioned dog parks. They named a number of potential sites, such as a 1.8 acre lot at 5200 Tchoupitoulas St., and a smaller site at 3249 Tchoupitoulas St.
In retrospect, the initial idea of 20 dog areas was likely too many in the first place, especially given the land acquisition involved and the maintenance needs that would arise, said Jackie Shreves, one of the founders of NOLA City Bark and the chairwoman of the city's task force on dog parks.
"I thought it was a little bit far-reaching when they came up with this idea of 20 dog parks," Shreves said. "To put dog parks where there's no need is asking for trouble, so to see the city pull back on this is for me not surprising."
Sure enough, in 2013, the scope of the plan was cut in half, as city officials released a list of 10 possible sites for new dog areas other than City Bark. It included waterfront areas such as Crescent Park in Bywater, The Fly at Audubon Park, the Algiers Point batture and the lakefront, and playgrounds such as the Rome Playspot in Gentilly, the East Citrus Playspot in New Orleans East and Wisner Park.
Flash forward to the end of 2013, when the Wisner Dog Run opened, and only one other dog park is currently being built: an area at the Crescent Park in Bywater, according to city spokesman Tyler Gamble.
"City Planning Commission has not recommended funding for any other sites at this time," Gamble said in an email.
While the Wisner and Crescent dog runs remain the only two options for dog owners on the immediate horizon, Richard said he is trying to create more designated spaces for dogs around the city. The two areas he currently is exploring are Cabrini Park in the Lower French Quarter, and the land around the newly renovated Lyons Center at Louisiana Avenue and Tchoupitoulas Street.
"Those two are the focuses now," Richard said. "I really want to try to identify the property."
The renovations at Wisner consist mostly of fencing that separates the playground, the basketball courts and the softball field from the dog area that runs between them. Inside the dog run are a few benches where humans can rest and two water fountains at ground level that owners can fill for their pets.
"It's just such a unique space now that there's these four designated areas, and they all serve a useful purpose," Winston said.
The park indirectly benefits those who use the softball field, because it keeps the dogs off of it. It also benefits dog owners, who no longer need to worry about running afoul of the city's leash law or whether a softball game is happening.
"There's no reason for a dog to be in the field now at all," Winston said. "As a dog owner, you can come to the park now whenever. You can always bring your dog and not worry about anything."
Felton Anderson lives in the Wisner neighborhood and on a recent Sunday was at Wisner Park with Love, his light-gray pit bull. He said the new fencing restricts dog owners, and some may not be coming because of the loss of space. Not too long ago, he said, he saw one frustrated dog owner trying to throw a ball to his dog but was constantly interrupted by other animals in the park.
"I do appreciate what's here," Anderson said. "But now you're forced to mingle your dog with other dogs, and some don't want that."
Winston acknowledges the limitations. "I don't think anyone envisions this being the next City Bark," Winston said. "This is more for people in the neighborhood to be able to go somewhere close to let their dogs stretch their legs."
Two young dog owners, 12-year-old Zachary Smith and 10-year-old Gabriella Smith, said the closed-in space is an improvement for them and their black Labrador retriever, Buddy.
"It's much better with the fences," Zachary said. "You know where your dogs are."
"They can't really go somewhere else," Gabriella said.
Markey Park was long used as an unofficial dog park, but renovations in 2013 did not include an off-leash area for dogs, despite vocal pleas from dog owners in the area. An off-leash area already has been built at Crescent Park, but no opening date has been announced. There are concerns it may only be open during business hours — preventing working people from using it, said Meghann McCracken, a co-founder of Unleash NOLA, an organization trying to create more off-leash areas for dogs.
Cabrini Park is far enough away that dog owners would have to drive, McCracken said. Unleash NOLA is advocating for an off-leash area at Markey Park or on a Housing Authority-owned parcel at Mazant and Royal streets proposed for redevelopment into a park called "Bywater Square." For the time being, however, downtown dog owners remain frustrated.
"We're still sitting here with nowhere for people to take their dogs," McCracken said. "Practically speaking, an accessible, open riverfront park would solve part of the problem. But from a neighborhood justice issue, it's still a shame what happened."
With dog parks falling off the city's priority list, why was Wisner Park the first to receive one?
The answer, those involved in the project say, is a combination of neighborhood organizing, available land and good timing.
The renovations to Wisner Park cost $307,000, and Richard said the park had been slated for some improvements separate from the dog park anyway. Meanwhile, dog owners were already making frequent use of the park — it was deemed one of the city's "unofficial" areas being used by dog owners — creating friction with some other neighborhood residents. Friends of Wisner Park, which already had organized tree plantings and the construction of a playground by the nonprofit group KaBOOM!, discussed the issue and began to advocate for a separate, fenced-in section for dogs as a solution.
"They realized that nothing was going to work unless they came to it themselves," Richard said. "The reason why it worked is because they wanted it to work."
So as the neighborhood had increasing requests for a dog park, the planned improvements to the park took shape around the fencing, leading to the new facility in use today.
But District B City Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell said a crucial element was that the city didn't have to acquire the land and the neighbors were willing to give up part of the park for the dogs.
"They used the existing footprint. That's one reason it worked out," Cantrell said. "The timing was on their side. The stars just aligned."
In the absence of a master plan for dog parks, officials say neighborhoods will need to return to organizing on a case-by-case basis. For example, Coliseum Square residents are unlikely to support adding fencing to their historic park, McAlister said, so they'll continue looking elsewhere for relief — if not from whatever solution Richard finds near the Lyons Center, then perhaps at Annunciation Square two blocks away.
In one way, the presence of the active Friends of Wisner Park group was as important a part of the model as any, said Shreves. The best approach for the city is probably to prioritize the parks based on individual demand, a crucial component of which is a local group to take responsibility for it. The city doesn't have the resources to watch over the parks the way that neighbors do, she said.
"If you don't have a neighborhood group that will help you make sure it's maintained, then you're going to end up with a mud hole and probably a lot of dog fights," Shreves said.
Cantrell said she will help explore any possibilities individual communities present to her.
"This is an opportunity for us to be creative at the neighborhood level," Cantrell said.
There are still open questions at Wisner Park. How well the park will be maintained remains to be seen, as well as whether it will be maintained by the city, by neighbors or some combination of the two. But Winston said it represents a huge step forward and one that can be repeated in some form or another in other New Orleans communities.
"This issue is not going away," he said. "People are still going to have dogs, and they're still going to need to get out. You need a community united toward changing the status quo; they might not want the same thing, but they want a change to how it is. As long as the city can work with that community, there's no reason it shouldn't work in other places."