Volume 76, Number 43 | March 21 - 27, 2007

Villager photo by Jefferson Siegel

Dog owners say the Leroy St. dog run’s gates aren’t completely safe, allowing dogs to escape near the highway.

Leroy run crowded and unsafe, small-dog owners howl

By Brooke Edwards

In October 2003, the Parks Department, with much fanfare, celebrated the 100th anniversary of Seward Park. Meeting a recreation need of children living in the Lower East Side’s overpopulated tenements, it was New York City’s first municipally built playground. Since those early years, public playgrounds have gone on to become an integral part of city life.

In more recent years, advocates for another kind of public recreation facility — dog runs — have made gains, but are still clawing for equal recognition and respect in the face of resistance.

“Dog owner recreation is still kind of a new concept,” said Tod Wohlfarth, president of the Friends of Leroy Dog Run. “But we are the playgrounds of the 21st century.”

The Leroy St. dog run, in Hudson River Park near the northern end of Pier 40 at Clarkson St., is located in one of the most underserved areas in the city as far as parkland goes. It is among the smallest of Downtown’s few dog runs, less than half the size of Washington Square Park’s dog run space, and only one-tenth the size of Tompkins Square’s dog run. And the overcrowding will likely be dramatically increased once scheduled renovations begin at these neighboring parks.

Jillian Slonim, who typically uses the Leroy St. run a few times a week, said, “I’ve had to take my dogs home due to overcrowding, or not even go in, as even dogs who normally interact well with others can become anxious or overreact when too many dogs are chasing one ball.”

In addition to these mounting population strains are dangerous design flaws they say have existed since the run opened four years ago. Wohlfarth’s group, along with NYCdog and the Dog Owners Action Committee, submitted a joint proposal to Community Board 2’s Parks and Waterfront Committee on March 5, calling for improvements and expansion of the Leroy St. dog run.

The proposal calls for a lengthy list of immediate safety improvements to the run, including clearly posting rules, maintaining streetlights and providing restroom access for owners. They also ask for the installation of summer shade structures, a permanent water feature and working drinking fountains for dogs and humans.

One of the most serious problems with the run, according to Wohlfarth, is its lack of proper security gates. He says the existing double gates were responsible for the death of a dog named Macaroni, who he said “ran into the West Side highway and was split in two — and a 10-year-old witnessed it.” He said this also poses a threat to dog owners, who instinctively run after their dogs.

“I’m worried that a person is going to get hit,” he warned.

The solution, the dog owners groups say, is to install gates that open inward, not outward. They also recommend installing gates that close automatically and a warning buzzer that sounds when both the inner and outer gates are open at the same time.

The other major complaint from regular users of the run is about the surface material, which they say becomes extremely slippery when it rains. There are many reports of injuries from dogs sliding out of control into benches and cement walls.

Melissa O’Donnell, who regularly uses the run with her black Lab, said, “My dog was running at the run the other day, slipped on the wet surface and slid into the corner of one of the benches. The result was an injury above his mouth that bled heavily.”

The proposal asks for padding to be placed around bench corners and along cement walls, at least until the run can be resurfaced.

The biggest change the proposal recommends is that the existing run be designated only for small dogs, or those under 23 to 25 pounds, citing previous incidents where small breeds were injured or killed by large dogs.

“Having small dogs in with big dogs is like having a toddler playground in the middle of basketball court,” said Lynn Pacifico, president of the Dog Owners Action Committee. Pacifico says there have been two small dogs killed by large dogs in the Leroy St. run.

Regular user Rondi Lotter said, “My 9-pound dog is terrorized by the shepherd dogs. These dogs immediately try to herd her in an aggressive manner. They nip at her to keep her in line.” Lotter said. “It is too dangerous for small dogs to share the run with large dogs.”

After much teeth gnashing and howling, several years ago, owners of small dogs succeeded in getting a separate run for small dogs in Washington Square Park.

As far as Leroy St. is concerned, the groups have proposed several locations for an additional run, which would be open to dogs of all sizes. Suggestions include at Spring St. by the river where three tennis courts are now, assuming those courts might someday be relocated onto Pier 40; on the Gansevoort Peninsula, which is slated for eventual redevelopment into a park; at J.J. Walker Field at Hudson and Clarkson Sts., if additional sports fields are created at Pier 40, allowing dog owners to “reclaim” space at J.J. Walker, which used to double as a dog run; and just to the south of J.J. Walker Field, where a park will be created after completion of a water shaft down to the new city water tunnel.

Their first choice is the spot with the tennis courts, Wohlfarth said, calling it “a win-win situation for everyone.” As Pier 40 is redeveloped, he said, they could move the tennis courts indoors on the pier where they could be used year-round. He said this would also solve another issue, that green sheets hung around the sides of the tennis courts to cut the wind violate Hudson Park policy, which requires that views of the river be unimpeded.

After hearing this proposal at the March 5 meeting, C.B. 2’s Parks Committee passed a resolution calling for another 10,000 square feet of dog run space on or near Pier 40 within the next few years. The current Leroy St. run is just 2,400 square feet. Next, Wohlfarth will present the proposal to the full community board during their March 22 meeting, calling for interim dog run space until the new run can be constructed.

Residents first began lobbying for a place to exercise their dogs in 1993, following the elimination of off-leash space at J.J. Walker Field. They continued to petition throughout the late ’90s, and, in 2000, succeeded in having C.B. 2 pass a resolution recommending they get space on Pier 40.

When dog owners and C.B. 2 members were shown the initial plans for the Leroy St. run, they expressed concern, requesting more space and a separate area for small dogs. However, the Hudson River Park Trust — the organization that operates the 5-mile-long park — proceeded with its original plans, opening the Leroy St. dog run in 2003.

After complaints were registered, some improvements were made to the run the following year, including installing a taller fence and adding umbrellas for shade.

“They did improve a huge portion in 2004,” Wohlfarth said. “But some of the key features that are a problem, they did not rectify.” Dog owners have continued lobbying for the rest of the improvements since that time.

The struggle surrounding the Leroy St. run is just one example of the shortage of dog recreation space citywide, dog run advocates say. Bob Marino, president of NYCdog, said, “There are under 50 dog parks in all of New York City, out of more than 1,700 total parks.” Marino says there should be dog runs in 1,000 city parks in order meet the needs of the dog-owner population.

One of the obstacles, Marino said, is that, “The policy of the Parks Department is that if you want a dog park, the owners have to pay for it themselves.”

“That’s the dirty little secret of dog runs,” Wohlfarth agreed. Even if they do convince C.B. 2 and the Trust to grant them space for another run, they will still likely be responsible for raising the funds to construct the run, which Marino said typically costs anywhere from $250,000 to $500,000.

At Tompkins Square Park, dog run users were asked by Parks to raise $150,000 for the run’s renovation, and they reportedly recently met that goal.

Yet there is still no policy guaranteeing that, even if a group raises all of the funds to build a run, they will then have a say in its design, though Marino said this is changing.

“They are including us more in the design process,” he said.

One thing that might help, in Marino’s view, would be to have a “dog park czar” in the Parks Department, who would represent dog owners and be knowledgeable about dog parks. Marino said Parks actually seems very interested and quite amenable to the idea.

Wohlfarth is also in favor of having a dog owner representative with Parks and on the Hudson River Park Advisory Council. He said dog owners make up 30 percent of the park user population during the summer and 50 to 60 percent during the winter, and yet they have no voice with the groups who make decisions about park plans. And so, he said, dog owners continue to be underrepresented and overlooked.

With more than a decade struggling for adequate dog run space in her neighborhood under her belt, Pacifico is anxious for the issue to be settled.

“I would like to stop going to meetings,” she said, “and start training my dogs again.”

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