In Seattle, a city with more dogs than children, parks officials play the role of mediator between dog owners and everyone else who wants to play in the city's green spaces.
Once Amazon decamped from its Beacon Hill headquarters in 2010, it was only a matter of time before the company, which lets employees bring their dogs to work, started lobbying for an off-leash area in its new South Lake Union neighborhood.
Last week, the Seattle Board of Park Commissioners agreed to establish a temporary off-leash area at Denny Park, with the proviso that no public funds be used. Amazon pledged $45,000 toward operation and upkeep and South Lake Union developer Vulcan promised an additional $50,000.
But the close 3-2 vote reflects some commissioners’ unease with letting dogs have the run of the city’s oldest park as well as ongoing tension between dog owners and everyone else who wants to play in the city’s green spaces.
“The reality is, these become exclusive for the use of dogs to the exclusion of other users,” said Parks Board Chairman Terry Holme, who supported the proposal despite what he described as “qualms.”
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It was the second time in a month that parks officials have had to mediate between dog advocates and other interests. A Parks proposal to reduce the Dr. Jose Rizal Park off-leash area on northwest Beacon Hill from 5 to 1.4 acres, and turn over some of the land for an urban orchard, a community garden and expanded use by the Filipino community, which uses the upper park for festivals and celebrations, touched off howls of protests among dog owners.
Late last month, Parks Acting Superintendent Christopher Williams announced that the Dr. Jose Rizal off-leash area would be reduced only by one acre, where the newly completed Mountains to Sound Greenway Trail cuts between the park’s western edge and Interstate 5.
Seattle is famous for having more dogs than children — 163,371 to 97,395 — according to recent estimates by the Seattle Animal Shelter and the census.
From their controversial creation in 1995, the city’s dog parks have grown in number and popularity, with 11 sites now scattered around the city and two more under construction, one on Lower Queen Anne and another in Magnolia, both funded by the 2008 Pro Parks levy.
In 2005 the city established the Dr. Jose Rizal off-leash area, with support from Amazon, whose headquarters were then across the street at the PacMed building. But the site never saw the carloads of canines that unload on sunny days at Magnuson and Lower Woodland parks off-leash areas.
Dog owners complained that Parks was at least partially to blame. The department never erected a sign to indicate the Rizal off-leash area’s existence to passers-by. And its location, at the foot of a steep hillside, in an overgrown, crime-ridden thicket along Interstate 5 known as “The Jungle,” meant there were often more transients and drug dealers than dog owners.
Citizens for Off-Leash Areas (COLA), a volunteer group that helps run the dog parks in cooperation with Parks, said it couldn’t find stewards to take on responsibility for a park that sometimes felt unsafe.
When Amazon left for South Lake Union, even fewer people used the off-leash area, said Russell Harley, chairman of the COLA board.
“The board felt that if the dog community didn’t want it, why should we fight Parks? We agreed that it would be easier to maintain if Parks reduced the size,” he said.
But other dog advocates didn’t want to lose one of the sites they’d fought so hard to create.
“It’s true that the dog area languished for a while, but they were ready to just give it away. They weren’t even going to have a public meeting until we jumped up and down,” said Sharon Levine a former COLA board member.
Parks agreed to a meeting and afterward announced the compromise.
Holme observed that dog parks can be positive forces to crowd out illegal activity and attract new users. He points to the Denny Regrade Park off-leash area downtown that he said has changed from crime-plagued to a community gathering place.
That’s the hope for Dr. Jose Rizal Park. Over the past decade, Craig Thompson, of the Beacon Alliance of Neighbors, marshaled legions of volunteers and pressed law enforcement to roust drug dealers and homeless campers.
Today, the area has been transformed from an ivy and blackberry- shrouded plateau by Interstate 5 to a surprisingly bucolic field complete with apple orchards, native trees and a sweeping, if noisy, overlook of the city and Elliott Bay.
In announcing that most of the dog park would be preserved, Superintendent Williams expressed optimism that the off-leash area would become more of a destination than it has been in the past, and that the presence of the trail and dog owners would lead to “more community use.”
In South Lake Union, Parks is searching for a permanent off-leash site. The leading candidate is the former Greyhound station on Denny Way near REI.
Still, Holme sighs when he thinks of the estimated three years that historic Denny Park will be home to free-roaming dogs.
“The grass never survives,” he said.
News researcher Gene Balk contributed to this report.
Lynn Thompson: 206-464-8305 or firstname.lastname@example.org