How a small French Quarter park became the center of a dog fight

Cabrini Playground looks like a straightforward community park, with playground equipment, a covered pavilion and grassy fields. But there's a lot of emotion tied to that 1.5 acre plot in the French Quarter. Over the past several years, the park has been the subject of intense debate, driving a wedge between neighbors who disagree about whether its future should include a fenced area for off-leash dogs. Now, the city's recreation department is poised to make a final decision about the park's fate.

The controversy reflects the tension inherent to public spaces: When you have limited space and funds, and community members who want different things, how do you reach a compromise?

And, some neighbors say, it raises questions about transparency at the city's recreation department and how it decides which residents' interests to prioritize.

A history almost 80 years in the making

Cabrini Playground sits in the northwestern corner of the French Quarter, bounded by Dauphine, Burgundy, Barracks and Gov. Nicholls streets. It opened in 1940 under the name Mother Cabrini Playground.

Over the past five years, the proposal to put a fenced, off-leash dog park in one portion of Cabrini has been met with controversy. Opponents say they don't want to see children lose ground at the park or put their safety at risk around off-leash dogs. Supporters say having an official, fenced area for dogs to play would address a crucial need, and curtail many people's practice of letting their dogs run off-leash at the park illegally.

The New Orleans Recreation Development Commission's CEO, Victor N. Richard III, is expected to make a final recommendation at a board meeting on Tuesday (Aug. 1).

Jon Kemp, a resident whose house abuts Cabrini and who has fought the dog park plan, said the issue for her is not the dogs themselves. Rather, it's the choice of Cabrini when other possible locations, like Armstrong Park or the Lafitte Greenway, have never been seriously discussed.

"This is the only green space some children have," Kemp said. "To take it away and give it to dogs is not socially responsible."

Kemp also slammed a city-sponsored neighborhood group called the downtown Community Advisory Team, which is tasked with speaking on behalf of the neighborhood to give the recreation department input on local playgrounds. Kemp claims the group has been "hijacked" by dog park supporters and no longer represents the entire neighborhood's voice.

Kiddie slides and monkey bars

In the face of criticism, leaders of the downtown Community Advisory Team say the underlying issue is about whether the recreation department has worked with them in good faith and made transparent land-use decisions.

For example, some French Quarter residents involved for years in the dog park debate point to the installation of children's playground equipment in a corner of Cabrini in early 2015.

Hundreds of emails examined through a public records request by | The Times-Picayune trace how the playground equipment arrived at Cabrini, in large part due to the efforts of French Quarter resident James O. Coleman. He spearheaded fundraising for the project and acted as a liaison between contractors, NORDC, and the city's capital projects division, emails show.

Coleman helped raise money from community members for the equipment, and donated those funds to the recreation department through KIPP New Orleans, Inc., which oversaw the nearby McDonogh 15 School for Creative Arts. The equipment was installed on a NORDC-owned portion of Cabrini, about half of which is also owned by the Orleans Parish School Board.

Emails document that volunteer donations for the equipment tallied around $225,000, including the equipment's installation and soil remediation for Cabrini. Additionally, the city put up roughly $87,000 for fence repairs and the playground's "safety surface."

Residents watching the work, however, expressed frustration that they couldn't get answers from the recreation department about what was going on. The playground was closed for eight months in 2014 and 2015.

"We are very concerned about the lack of transparency surrounding the renovations going on at the park across the street," one resident wrote in a 2014 email to NORDC staff.

Playground in the public forum

So how does a private citizen get involved in helping fund playground equipment for a local park?

In an emailed statement, Coleman wrote that he helped raise funds and took part in meetings about the project on a volunteer basis only, and never spoke on behalf of KIPP. Email records, meanwhile, demonstrate he played an integral role in the project's implementation, at one point even given keys to open and close Cabrini's gate.

Emails do show McDonough 15 staff were kept in the loop as the project progressed, joining in meetings and receiving email updates.

Erin Burns, the mayor's press secretary, said Friday that any organization interested in sprucing up NORDC playgrounds has to submit a proposal in writing, which is then reviewed by the CEO. The CEO can then bring a proposal to NORDC's programming committee, which would make a recommendation on approval to the board.

Burns added that the equipment installation at Cabrini followed "a formal, open process," authorized by a cooperative endeavor agreement between KIPP and the city.

Despite backlash, many residents have praised the new children's equipment as a much-needed resource for kids, and welcomed Coleman's involvement.

"He should be applauded for taking his time and energy to do this," Kemp said last week, echoing comments from other residents made in emails to NORDC staff. "He certainly helped a lot of families and a lot of children."

Wayne Wilkinson, a French Quarter resident who has long raised questions about the equipment installation, said his beef is more with the transparency of the decision-making process rather than the actual slides, swings and monkey bars.

"The playground is a good thing in itself," said Wilkinson, who is the downtown Community Advisory Team's former vice president. "But the way it was done, it felt like a betrayal of trust with the people."

'Serious business with serious money'

Highlighting the clash over dogs at Cabrini, emails show that the recreation department has struggled to enforce the leash law.

"Warnings do not intimidate dog owners who are habitual offenders when it comes to disrespecting the law at Cabrini," Richard, the recreation department's CEO, wrote in a 2014 email to NOPD's then-8th District Cmdr. Jeffrey Walls. "This is serious business with serious money being spent for improvements."

Ultimately, NORDC hired an armed security guard to patrol the park for about two months to enforce the city's leash law, starting in early December 2015. During that short timeframe, emails from residents reported tense interactions: One resident said she and a friend felt uncomfortable being "tailed" by the guard. Others questioned whether having an openly armed guard patrolling a place where kids play was a wise idea.

Tensions also ran high over the alleged behavior of an employee tasked with closing Cabrini's gate each night and opening it in the morning.

In one 2015 complaint, a resident said the employee "pushed through between me and my infirmed dog knocking us both out of his way," leading to "a huge verbal battle." Another resident complained that the employee "verbally attacked" her.

"I was told to 'F--- off, that I'll decide what time the park is locked up,'" the resident wrote in her email complaint. "This is wrong on so many levels it is not funny."

Emails show NORDC staff removed the employee from Cabrini duties, though it's not clear whether that was due to the complaints. Burns, the mayor's spokeswoman, declined to comment, citing personnel matters.

The last of its kind

For leaders of the downtown Community Advisory Team, the city's treatment of Cabrini Playground and its stakeholders is emblematic of a deeper schism of trust caused by what they claim to be broken promises for stronger community engagement.

To highlight that schism, Anne Marie Hesson, the downtown Community Advisory Team's current president, points to Mayor Mitch Landrieu's 2011 initiative to create over a dozen Community Advisory Teams representing neighborhoods across the city. The teams were created to draw communities and the recreation department closer together.

However, both Hesson and Wilkinson say of the more than a dozen Community Advisory Teams that were created, their downtown team is the only one still conducting any business. The rest, they say, are "not functional."

Burns, the mayor's spokeswoman, said shuttered community groups instead have recourse to regular NORDC board meetings, committee meetings and booster clubs. She did not confirm whether all but one of the advisory teams no longer exist.

"Members of Community Advisory Teams that are no longer operating have taken advantage of those additional avenues to work with NORDC to achieve desired results," Burns wrote.

The downtown team pushed hard for the dog park because it seemed like the only thing they could get the recreation department to do, Hesson said.

Their requests for non-dog park items, like getting the grass cut and to add lighting, were met with what they deemed unsatisfactory responses from NORDC staff, several emails show. So the team's leaders "pivoted" to the dog park plan, Hesson said.

Now, even the dog park proposal looks doubtful, she acknowledges.

"There are people in this city who want to take part, whether it's a dog park or crime or education," Hesson said. "If you let them think their input is valued and you prove them otherwise over and over again, you're going to get a disaffected citizenry."