In December 2015, dog owners across Ward 4 submitted the largest petition ever to build a dog park in DC. But a small group of neighbors put up a big fight, and last week the Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR) made it official: no dog park. Here’s what happened.
Image from New York City Department of Parks and Recreation.
In late 2014, a group of dog owners that live around the Takoma Recreation Center started meeting regularly to let their dogs play together in one of the fields. It turns out the closest canine closure was at Upshur Park, which is the only dog park in Ward 4, and is about 2.5 miles away from the rec center. With the goal of getting a dog park built closer to them, the neighbors organized into the Northern Ward 4 Dog Park Group. The full list of DC’s 13 dog parks can be found here.
How DPR decides whether to build a dog park
The application to build a dog park in DC is a gauntlet of work. It requires the applicant to gather lots of signatures of support from their neighbors; it requires a letter of support from the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC); it also requires applications be posted in DC Register for a 30-day public comment period.
After the public comment period, a Dog Park Application Review Committee reviews the entire application and provides the DPR Director a recommendation, but DPR’s regulations give the DPR Director the sole authority to decide whether to approve or reject applications.
The criteria for making that ultimate decision? The preamble for DPR’s regulations on dog parks states that flexibility is required when making decisions about where to put them because DC is dense and parkland is scarce.
DPR’s regulations also state that dog parks should be placed on under-utilized land where possible, but not in areas specifically designated as playgrounds or children’s play areas, including athletic fields and courts.
Neighbors found all kinds of options for a dog park, but they keep getting shot down
In early 2015, the Dog Park Group started talking to DPR and neighbors of the rec center about possible locations for a dog park. If you look at the map below, you’ll see the corner of 4th and Whittier Streets, NW marked as Site #1, as that’s where the Dog Park Group initially proposed that the park be located.
Satellite view of the proposed sites for a dog park at the Takoma Recreation Center. On this map, north is to the right. Image from Google Maps.
All that sits at that site is an abandoned shuffleboard court and some trees. Across the street, there are a few single-family homes.
Close-up of the Dog Park Group’s first proposed site. Image from Google Maps.
I interviewed Michael Cohen, a representative from the Dog Park Group, and he said DPR initially agreed to this site. But, he added, after they gathered almost 300 signatures for their petition, a DPR official told him that a few neighbors that lived across the street objected to the proposed site because it was too close to their homes and DPR advised picking another site.
I asked DPR about this claim, and Communications Director Gwendolyn Crump told me the first site was rejected by the Department of Energy and Environment due to concerns about stormwater runoff.
Cohen told me his group worked with members of the ANC covering the rec center, ANC 4B, to find a better site. As shown in the map below, the second site was not adjacent to any streets or housing, instead bordering the Takoma indoor pool and was just north of Coolidge High School.
Close-up of the Dog Park Group’s second proposed site. Image from Google Maps.
Cohen told me DPR again initially supported the site location, so the group again began conducting outreach and collecting signatures. But, again, prior to making a formal application to DPR, he claims that DPR told them that the principal for Coolidge High School objected to the location.
I also asked Crump about this, and she said that a nearby church objected to the site over noise concerns.
Cohen said the Dog Park Group was disappointed but again worked with ANC 4B to find another alternative site. As shown on the map below, the third chosen site was near the intersection of Underwood and 3rd Streets NW, wedged between a baseball/soccer field and a parking lot.
Close-up of the Dog Park Group’s third proposed site. Image from Google Maps.
Again, DPR initially supported this location for a dog park, so the Dog Park Group began to conduct outreach to their neighbors. The group collected 563 signatures in favor of building at this site -- the largest dog park petition ever recorded by DPR.
The people petitioning for a dog park made a strong case for one
The group’s December 2015 application made a pretty clear case for why northern Ward 4 should have a dog park. The zip code of the Takoma Rec Center, 20011, has the second-highest number of registered dogs in DC; DPR’s own master plan, Play DC, designated a future dog park around the rec center; and finally, the rec center has more than six acres of unutilized land.
Also in December 2015, the group managed to secure a written endorsement of support from ANC 4B. As required, the application was published in the DC register from February 26 - May 1, 2016 (even though DPR’s regulations only require 30-days of public comment).
DPR was not required but held community meetings in July and October of 2015 and March and April of 2016. The Dog Park Group is opposed primarily by a small, opaque organization known as the “Friends of the Takoma Recreation Center”. That group is one of many community advisory groups created under Mayor Anthony Williams to help DPR manage its facilities.
The Dog Park Group made repeated attempts to work with the Friends of the Rec Center toward a compromise. I attended a public Friends meeting in March of this year to observe the discussion and wrote about it on my blog, but here’s what they put in writing to the Dog Park Group as their bottom line: “Our mission is to support a clean, safe and fun environment at our park. The Friends' focus is and has always been programs and activities for children. We hope you find a community that is interested in supporting your cause.”
Despite opposition, on September 12, 2016, the Dog Park Application Review Committee voted 5-3 in favor of the third chosen site.
Map showing some of the addresses of the Petitioners seeking a Dog Park at the Takoma Rec Center. Image from Google Maps.
This month, the dog park effort received a formal “no”
On October 16, 2016, DPR Director Keith Anderson formally denied the Dog Park Group’s application. Mr. Anderson noted that he considered the application, community meetings, the public comments and various letters and emails in support and opposition. Despite a positive endorsement from the DPARC, Mr. Anderson’s denial rested on three reasons:
(i) Its too-close proximity to nearby residences' front porches;
(ii) Its failure to streamline with the existing use of the open space where adults and children play, walk, and rest; and
(iii) Its location between two heavily used athletic fields.
Mr. Anderson ended his denial letter with the following statement: “Please note, however, this does not foreclose the possibility of a dog park being located in an alternative site within the community. DPR is committed to collaborating with the community to ensure the needs of dog enthusiasts are met.”
Dog owners need a place to let their dogs play
I have reviewed Mr. Anderson’s stated reasons for denying the Dog Park Group’s application and find them to be curious when you consider that DC’s other dog parks are mostly on DPR parks and adjacent to housing and athletic fields. The larger issue, however, is that DPR completely ignored the preamble to its own regulations, which requires flexibility and compromise. Playgrounds can and already do co-exist for both kids and dogs.
According to some reports, there are now more households with dogs (43 million) than with kids (38 million), and urban dog parks are the fastest growing. That’s because urban dog owners usually lack the outside space needed to let their dogs exercise and play with other canines.
Image from Pinterest.
The Dog Park Group proposed using unutilized land at the Takoma Rec Center to let their dogs exercise and socialize. They followed all of DPR’s rules, made multiple attempts to find a site that DPR would support, conducted extensive outreach with the opposition group and received a positive recommendation from the review committee. What more could they have done?
Where do we go from here?
I contacted Keith Anderson and posed a few questions to better understand his denial letter. DPR’s communications director politely responded to some of my questions, although I was told to submit a Freedom Of Information Act request to answer others.
My final question to DPR was "is Director Anderson willing to reconsider his decision?" DPR responded basically no, but that they have already contacted Mr. Cohen and plan to collaborate “to find an area within Takoma that is best situated to handle a dog park while not impacting use of the park by those without dogs.”
I confirmed that DPR did indeed contact Cohen to discuss an alternative site. But the entire experience is ponderous - why is building this dog park on unused land so controversial? Could the Dog Park Group have done more to alleviate concerns by the Friends group?
If you think DPR’s director should support the Dog Park Group application, you can let him know by sending an e-mail to email@example.com and copy Mr. Cohen (firstname.lastname@example.org). If you live in Ward 4, please copy your e-mail to Councilmember Brandon Todd at email@example.com (I contacted Brandon Todd to get a comment for this post and he did not respond).
Full Disclosure: The author lives in Maryland and has no “dog” in this fight, but has a dog that loves to play with other dogs.
Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington