February 2014

Esprit Park for the Dogs

Morgane Byloos

With its flat expanse of grass, in a neighborhood with a scarcity of green space, Esprit Park has attracted dogs and their owners since it was transferred to the City in 2001. Depending on the time of day, multiple off-leash animals can be found roaming freely. But, according to municipal law, the park is restricted to on-leash use only, and it wasn’t originally developed as a dog park.

In 1980, the Esprit Corporation purchased the land on which its namesake park now exists, and knocked down the existing ramshackle buildings. Douglas Tompkins, Esprit’s co-founder and chief executive officer, hired Drew Detsch to design and build a park. According to Detsch, Tompkins wanted to create a place for Esprit employees that would also benefit a neighborhood in transition. The park was built in two years; Tompkins refrained from fencing it in to allow community members to enjoy it. Initially, a few “no dogs” signs dotted the space, which generally kept the animals away for the next 20 years.

By 1996, Tompkins and his then-wife Susie Tompkins Buell had lost control of Esprit. The company’s new owner, Jay Margolis, decided to sell the parcel on which the park was located to be developed into a condominium complex. In response, Dogpatch residents formed Friends of Esprit Park, raising $35,000 to save the park. But, even with another $1 million from the City’s Open Space Fund, it wasn’t enough to buy the property, which was estimated to be worth between $4 and $5 million.

Pressured by Friends of Esprit Park, in 2001 the Willie Brown Administration arranged a “clever land swap,” according to Detsch, between Esprit Park and a parcel located at 16th and Illinois streets. The park was saved. But the City wasn’t prepared to maintain its new acquisition. The “plants began dying,” said Detsch, and the irrigation system quickly deteriorated. In response, the City cut down the plants. “As the park degraded, people stopped coming,” Detsch said. Dog owners let their dogs run off-leash in the denuded, under-utilized space.

In 2003, the City dedicated $1.2 million from the Open Space Acquisition Fund—bond monies dedicated to purchasing park land—to rehabilitate the park. The irrigation system was replaced, and a new lawn installed. “It was unbelievable, really,” Detsch said. “But after it was completed, dog owners returned.” In an attempt to create barriers between people, plants, and dogs, Janet Carpinelli, now president of the Dogpatch Neighborhood Association, led an informal effort to designate areas of the park off-leash, but without a fence dogs continued to traverse the open space without restriction.

According to San Francisco Health Code Section 41.12, “All dogs must be leashed or tethered except in designated exercise areas.” There are two off-leash dog areas in Potrero Hill — at the Potrero Hill Recreation Center and McKinley Square — and 28 throughout San Francisco.

Over the years, in various bursts of intensity, Dogpatch residents have complained that Esprit Park isn’t a pleasant place, especially for families, as it’s polluted by animal waste and the lawn is degraded. “Do we play there? On the sidelines,” said AK Smith, a Dogpatch resident and mother of a two-year-old. “If we bring a ball, it gets taken by the dogs. So we go to look at the trees and watch the dogs, but we never ever play on the grass. I’ve learned my lesson.”

“I can understand other people’s concerns,” said Steve Sacks, dog owner and Dogpatch resident since 2001. “But if you have a toddler, maybe you don’t need such a big park. But I don’t want to sound so exclusive.” Sacks insisted that if dogs are aggressive they should be put on-leash. He added that, although there are technically two parts to the park—one for on- and one for off-leash—dogs don’t respect the tree-lined division in the middle of the park. He said the only thing that would limit dogs from freely roaming would be a fence.

Some dog owners respect the off-leash regulations. “I am a dog owner, and I like to take my dog out but there are places to do that,” said Detsch. According to Detsch, who still sits on the board of Friends of Esprit Park, “the dog owners love their dogs and shout loudly, and the City doesn’t enforce regulations.”

San Francisco Recreation and Parks spokesperson Connie Chan encouraged Dogpatch residents to call 311 to report any park issues. However, she said it’s difficult to enforce the rules, as the department is understaffed. “It is not easy for urban living with such a diverse population with such different needs,” Chan said.

Prompted by Friends of Esprit Park, the City replanted upwards of 30 new trees at the park last year. However, Detsch said the lawn is too degraded and under too much pressure to be rehabilitated without being replaced because of dogs skidding and running. He emphasized that on-leash dogs don’t have much of an impact on the grass; the main problem comes from free-ranging animals.

“If the neighborhood got together I think we could find a very nice common ground for everyone, like at Duboce, where I used to live,” Smith said. “I sincerely hope people can work together to get to a fun place for the neighborhood. Everyone loves dogs here. It would be nice to give humans —big and small— some space as well”

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