City’s first ‘official’ off-leash dog area under construction at Wisner Park in Uptown

Jason Adler admired the dirt mounds in Wisner Playground on a recent afternoon while his yellow lab and dachshund frolicked nearby.

“This is how it should be,” he said of the construction site at the Uptown playground. “The community speaks, the government acts and you end up with a phenomenal compromise.”

Adler’s praise was directed toward the future site of a 8,700-square-foot dog run, which will be the first off-leash area built since the New Orleans Department of Recreation Commission identified 19 prospective sites for dog parks last May.

The project, which is one of many elements of Wisner Playground’s $200,000 makeover, was a collaboration between neighbors, the city and nearby Drexel Preparatory and could serve as a blueprint for future dog parks.

“Wisner is a success story and a model,” said Vince Smith, director of capital projects for the city.

Smith said that New Orleans currently has only one official off-leash area for dogs, which is City Bark, a 4.6-acre dog park in City Park that’s run by a non-profit group with the same name. However, in its 2012 report, NORDC identified 29 “unofficial dog parks” where pets fraternized and residents ignored leash laws.

Among them was Wisner Playground, where neighbors had socialized alongside their dogs for years. Sam Winston, who lives close to the park and frequents it with his dog, said the park was a hub of community interaction for dog owners.

At the same time, the park’s field was being used for youth recreation, including the Drexel Preparatory softball team. A KaBOOM! playground, purchased by neighbors, was also onsite and attracted lots of families with young children.

According to Vic Richard, CEO of NORDC, the different stakeholders produced overlapping uses that were causing tension among park patrons and the city.

“We had lots of illegal use,” Richard said. It was so bad that even when I had my guys out there with a dump truck people wouldn’t put their dogs on a leash.”

Adler said that the police would occasionally show up and issue tickets to owners for violating the city’s leash laws.

“It was infuriating,” he said about the enforcement, which he considered heavy-handed.

Ramsey Green, who lives near the park, said that the tight-knit neighborhood began searching for ways to fulfill the needs of both kids and dog owners.

“We never had a value judgment of kids versus dogs,” he said. “We came to a solution where dog owners and parents and kids can use the parks equally as much.”

The group found an architect who designed a self-contained dog run that could be confined between the softball fence and the playground. According to Smith, the design was a mirror image of a plan the city had considered.

A compromise was reached, construction began in late July and the project is scheduled to be finished by late September.

Smith said the city is slated to finish another dog run at Reinventing The Crescent Park in the Bywater in late October but currently has no other dog facilities in progress.

The reason: a lack of funding.

While both the dog run at Wisner Playground and Reinventing the Crescent Park utilized money already allocated for larger redevelopment projects, Smith said that the estimated price tag for the original 19 dog facilities was over $5 million; a smaller list of 11 “recommended” dog parks would cost about half that much.

Last year, the City Planning Commission declined to approve funding for any of the dog parks, though Richard said he’s put them in his budget request for the upcoming year.

Lexie Montgomery, a board member of the non-profit group Unleash NOLA, believes there are cheaper options available. Her organization has developed a boilerplate plan that would allow neighbors to raise money and develop their own dog parks for as little as $5,000. She said NORDC officials are enthused about the concept.

Montgomery, who moved to New Orleans from New York City to pursue animal rescue work after Hurricane Katrina, said that other urban areas have faced similar challenges in regard to dog parks in the past.

“New Orleans is pretty much where New York City was 20 years ago,” she said.

Montgomery said that by allowing private fundraising New York was able to transform its multitude of unofficial dog parks into official ones, of which it has over 50 today.

She added that data has shown that dogs who are allowed to run off-leash are less likely to bite humans and that dog parks often make communities safer by taking rarely used green space back from drug dealers and criminals.

Richard, a dog owner himself, said that the recreation agency is committed to fulfilling the needs of dog owners, but he also reiterated his stance that “dogs’ needs will not supersede humans.”

Despite outcry from many in the Bywater community, a dog run or park was not included in the $500,000 redevelopment of Mickey Markey Park. Smith said the city’s arrangement with the Trust For the Public Land, which provided funding for the project, precluded such an arrangement.

Meghann McCracken, who started a petition and helped raise $5,000 for such a space, was one of many frustrated by the decision.

“It’s not about the dogs, it’s about community,” she said.

Yet, the majority of unofficial dog parks remain unchanged.

At Cabrini Park in the French Quarter, dozens of dogs jostled with each other on a recent afternoon, while their owners read books, sipped beer and sunbathed.

A few miles away, Ramona, a 4-year-old jet-black mutt, bolted across the water fountain at Coliseum Square Park in the Garden District before leapfrogging over her playmate Chloe.

“They’re playing king of the fountain,” said owner Daniel Fox about his pets, whose acrobatic displays induced smiles from the half-dozen park patrons stretched across benches.

Fox said he was unmoved by the signs mandating that dogs must be leashed.

“It’s New Orleans,” he said. “Everything is unofficial.”