In the dog days of summer, what’s a dog owner to do?
HASTINGS-ON-HUDSON, N.Y. — No one was in the doghouse, not even Quigley and Snowflake, two Pomeranians on a car trip with their owners, Alan Ruta and Jennifer Wright of Cambridge, New York.
Quigley and Snowflake sniffed the doghouse — actually, there are two large, cream-colored doghouses next to the front doors of the Ardsley rest stop on the New York State Thruway, and they checked out both.
As Quigley noticed — or was it Snowflake? — these are not conventional doghouses. They are made not of wood but of powder-coated aluminum. They are air-conditioned. They have internet connectivity, although that is for owners to pay 30 cents a minute so the dogs can lounge inside, not for the dogs to watch cat videos or anything. The idea is to park man’s best friends in a comfortable place while their owners go where they cannot — into the rest-stop building, with the usual “no pets allowed” signs on the doors.
These are, um, the dog days of summer. A dog cannot be left in a car. Some people do, and also leave the engine running and the air-conditioning on (and maybe worry that Rover would slide behind the wheel and drive off, as in the Walt Disney comedy “The Shaggy Dog”). But mostly, there is the question: What’s a dog owner to do?
The doghouses, called DogSpots, are Chelsea Brownridge’s answer. She is a 33-year-old nonprofit executive-turned-entrepreneur from Brooklyn who owns a terrier named Winston. And, four years after she dreamed up the idea of putting “pet sanctuaries” in public places, the doghouses now figure in an improbable bureaucratic back story: Brownridge’s startup was nursed along by one New York City agency, only to be all but shut out by another.
“I think this gets down to the right hand wasn’t talking to the left hand,” Brownridge said. “New York City’s government is large, and they’re obviously dealing with a lot of moving parts.”
She said the mayor’s Office of Technology and Innovation invited her company to attend the Smart City Expo World Congress 2017 in Barcelona, Spain, a gathering that attracted 675 exhibitors and more than 400 speakers. One of the keynote speakers at this year’s conference will be Janette Sadik-Khan, who was the transportation commissioner when Michael Bloomberg was mayor — the top official at the agency that, forced Brownridge’s doghouses out of Brooklyn.
The department she used to run, the city’s Transportation Department, rules the sidewalks because they are considered public rights of way. And in November, while Brownridge was at the Smart City gathering at the city’s invitation, the Transportation Department sent her a cease-and-desist letter that took issue with the very thing she was in Barcelona promoting. “Please be advised that you do not have permission or authorization” to install the doghouses on sidewalks, the letter said before telling her to remove them or else “we will take all appropriate legal actions including removal of the structures.”
Brownridge said dryly that, considering where she was when she heard about the letter, “This was extremely ironic.” She added that the letter “didn’t spell out what rules we were in violation of.”
Two months later, after emails and a couple of meetings, the Transportation Department sent a second cease-and-desist letter. It said the agency had inspected more than 30 sidewalk locations where doghouses were installed and found that all but two were on public property, and were illegal. (The two were apparently on private property.)
Brownridge said she and her staff of 10 had gone into the project with their eyes open. “We weren’t under any illusion that putting something on sidewalks wasn’t quite complicated,” she said, adding that her team had attempted to reach Transportation Department officials, she said for “answers and clarity.”
“I think them not giving us that clarity was because they were busy and didn’t know what to do with us,” she said.
Transportation officials agree with that point: The doghouses did not fit any of the usual categories for things people want to put on sidewalks.
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That conclusion led the officials to a second: Without a change in the city’s administrative code, the doghouses would never be legal.
The cease-and-desist letter did not faze Brownridge, who went ahead with plans to expand the company, negotiating to place DogSpots in other cities and making the arrangements with the New York State Thruway Authority and HMSHost, the food-service company that runs 10 rest stops on the Thruway.
The Thruway Authority categorized the doghouses as a “vending amenity,” which is allowed under the agency’s contract with HMSHost. Jonathan Dougherty, a spokesman for the Thruway Authority, said, more than once, that no money from taxes or tolls had gone into putting the DogSpots where they are. He also said he has a 10-year-old Shetland sheepdog named Sadie, and while he has not used one yet, “The DogSpots will come in handy on our many road trips.”
The DogSpots got mixed reviews from passers-by here the other day. Ruth Hansen, a physical therapist at Mercy College in Dobbs Ferry, New York, said she did not know if her 6-year-old husky, Apollo, would go into a Dog Spot if he were traveling with her. “He has a crate — that’s his home,” she said. “We bought him a doghouse. He wouldn’t go in.”
Back in Brooklyn, City Councilman Rafael Espinal Jr. has introduced a bill that would permit “pet harbors,” a term intended to include DogSpots. Erika Tannor, an aide to Espinal, compared Brownridge’s doghouses to coin-operated children’s rides outside stores.
“How is this dog harbor different from any one of those?” Tannor said, adding that a dog harbor takes up about the same sidewalk space.
Tannor also described what happened during a news conference that Espinal called in support of the dog houses during the winter. A couple of dogs wandered by — “not the owner of the company’s dog, random dogs,” Tannor said.
“One went directly in and sat down,” she said. “It was the cutest thing. It seemed like a place that she wanted to be. And it’s much more humane than having a dog tied on the street where people can steal it. In the Bronx, right after we did our press conference, a little girl went into the supermarket, and they tied their dog up outside before they went in, and somebody stole the dog.”