Why New Orleans doesn't have more dog parks -- and what's in the works

Olive, left and Grady play tug-o-war with a well worn frisbee at City Bark Friday on August 12, 2011. Dog advocates and city officials have been marshaling forces in recent months to push ahead in determining where to establish new off-leash dog parks in New Orleans.

More off-leash dog areas may be in the offing for New Orleans, adding to a short list of official off-leash parks and fenced "runs" that many dog owners have long griped are not enough.

As in many cities across the country, efforts to create more dog parks in New Orleans occur within the context of an off-leash history fraught with tension, where views vary widely on whether dog parks help or harm a neighborhood's safety and cohesion. But after many starts and stumbles, New Orleans appears poised to see a few more official off-leash areas for dogs spring up.

In recent weeks, public meetings have been held by the New Orleans Recreation Development Commission to look at two possible sites for off-leash spots. Next up, a community meeting will be held Tuesday evening (Jan. 10) to discuss yet another potential off-leash site at Annunciation Playground in the Lower Garden District, on Annunciation Street between Orange and Race streets. That meeting will be held from 6 to 7 p.m. Tuesday night at 800 Race Street.

According to city officials, the purpose of Tuesday night's meeting will be to continue discussions on how to bring a new off-leash area to Uptown to provide an option other than the Wisner Dog Run, which opened in 2013 on Annunciation between Laurel and Upperline streets. Annunciation Playground was pegged as a potential off-leash site after officials decided last month that another possible site -- the Leo Benewell Playspot in the Irish Channel, off Tchoupitoulas and Pleasant streets -- would be too small.

"Since Wisner has been the only off leash Dog Run in Uptown it has steadily gained increased usage to the point that now neighbors and users report that it becomes over used and too crowded," reads a note attached to Tuesday's meeting notice and penned by District B Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell and City Council Director of Constituent Services Bryon Cornelison. "So all the issues point to the need of an additional off leash dog park uptown."

According to Vic Richard, the development commission's CEO, the commission's chief concern of the years has been figuring out how to balance human and canine interests, as well as enforcing the city's leash laws.

"Through the years, we have been committed to working with the community to achieve both a balanced accommodation that protects children and adults and provides pet owners options for lawfully enjoying public space with their dogs," Richard wrote in a statement emailed late Tuesday afternoon. "We will also continue to address the issue of unlawful dog activity in (commission) parks."

Any new parks would join the three official off-leash dog parks and runs in the city proper, with a half-dozen other off-leash options in Jefferson Parish and the North Shore. It's high-time the city start putting some more serious thought toward boosting the number of legal off-leash areas in New Orleans, according to Lake Vista resident Jackie Shreves.

"We're way behind what other cities are doing," said Shreves, a former Louisiana SPCA president who has spearheaded the effort to bring more off-leash areas to New Orleans. "The city needs more."

Nonetheless, adding two or three new parks in New Orleans is a far cry from the nearly 20 locations recommended as possible off-leash areas by a task force created by the development commission in 2011. That year, Shreves was tapped to head up the task force, and viewed the recommendations as a broad-brush first step toward meeting the great off-leash need.

Soon afterward, city officials floated an idea to place a pair of dog parks in each of the city's five City Council districts, plus one extra, making for 11 new off-leash sites. But, according to Shreves, that idea never gained traction due to lack of funding, and sidelined off-leash discussions for a while. She said the proposal "was ridiculous anyway," because allocating the parks by council district, instead of focusing on where the need was, didn't make much sense.

"The primary consideration is, Does the neighborhood want it and is there some sort of group that would take responsibility for it?" Shreves said, speaking by phone on Sunday. "Your dog park is not going to be successful if it's just going to rely on a municipal effort."

As in many cities across the country, off-leash advocates like Shreves have faced pushback from opponents who argue parks and other public spaces should cater just to humans, particularly children. Aside from parents' safety concerns about dogs running loose around their small kids, opponents have also pegged careless dog owners who don't clean up after or adequately supervise their dogs as a major reason for limiting or outright eliminating off-leash areas.

"I love dogs," reads one anonymous comment included in a July survey on whether to have a new dog park in the French Quarter. "It's their uncaring owners that cause the problems."

Those tensions even pushed the city to hire an armed security guard to patrol Cabrini Park in the French Quarter. After the park suddenly closed in 2014 to be transformed into a school playground, observers believed the park had seen the last of its days as a popular unofficial off-leash area. But dogs and their owners returned en masse once the park reopened in early 2015, prompting the security guard's appearance.

In his emailed statement, Richard said that the commission "assigned a contracted security detail" to enforce on-leash compliance at Cabrini and inform violators that they would be issued citations. The security detail was contracted "in response to multiple resident complaints," Richard said, and lasted from Dec. 9, 2015, to Jan. 28, 2016.

Anne Marie Hesson said she remembers one outing at Cabrini when she and her friend were tailed by the armed guard, even though no one had a dog in the park. Hesson, who serves on an advisory team that acts as a liaison between the city and park-goers in the French Quarter, echoed others in the belief that the development commission hired the guard in response to pressure from neighbors opposed to off-leash dogs in Cabrini.

"It was kind of intimidating," Hesson said, speaking by phone on Saturday. "And in a park with children, where does a gun have less business being? It was all very weird."

Now, Cabrini Park is poised to become the city's newest off-leash spot, after NORD voted in September to create a dog "run" there -- a "run" being less than one acre of fenced space for dogs to play off-leash, while a "park" is an acre or larger. Design plans are in the works, recommendations have been made for what amenities dog owners would like to have in the park, and a community meeting is scheduled for Feb. 6 to further hash out details.

"It's moving forward," said Wayne Wilkerson, a French Quarter resident who serves on the same advisory team as Hesson. "We need these (parks) all over the city so there won't be too many people in one place with all these dogs."

While Cabrini appears headed for perhaps a promising compromise between dog walkers and those against off-leash areas, other recent efforts have fractured the park-user community and frayed confidence in the development commission.

Off-leash advocates are still reeling over what happened at Bywater's Mickey Markey Park, which was long used as a popular yet unofficial off-leash space until the park closed in 2011 due to high lead levels in the dirt. However, a dog park was not included in the plans when the park reopened in 2013, sparking the ire of dog owners who urged the development commission to quickly open what they saw as a potential alternative: a dog run slated to occupy a portion of the new Crescent Park along the riverfront.

But once Crescent Park opened in 2014, dog walkers were dismayed to find a short dog run tucked into the park's eastern side that denoted a brief, mostly dirt stretch lacking water fountains, shade and benches. For Shreves and others, the Crescent Park Dog Run marks a bone thrown to off-leash advocates that, instead, has come to symbolize the blown opportunity of Markey Park.

"The city used the excuse of the Crescent Park run to get rid of Markey Park," Shreves said. "It's not very functional, but it's fixable," she said. "But I don't think the city will put any resources into fixing it."

So, in New Orleans proper, off-leash aficionados are left with the two dog runs at Wisner and Crescent Park, as well as City Park's 4.6-acre, gated NOLA City Bark dog park that requires a key card, permit and annual fee. Cabrini Park is on the way, and, perhaps, Annunciation Playground or another site will come to fruition.

Regardless of where future off-leash areas end up, Shreves and others believe the "great need" remains for legal dog spots close to where they live. Too little has been done to meet that need so far, Shreves said, leaving less-frequented parks more susceptible to crime and shrinking the opportunities for neighbors to congregate.

"The commonality is their dogs," Shreves said, speaking over the phone Sunday afternoon. "It's a door opener for people, and it helps with safety. It's a much bigger issue than just the dogs."