A Stitch in Time Reweaves Esprit Park

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Community leaders and park enthusiasts symbolically break ground on an extensive Esprit Park renovation on January 20, 2023. Photo: Daniel Idziak

Earlier this year the long-awaited renovation of the 80,000 square foot – 1.84 acre – Esprit Park in Dogpatch commenced. Ceremonial shovels were wielded by local dignitaries, residents, and park users, including District 10 Supervisor Shamann Walton and students at Red Bridge, a kindergarten to eighth grade independent school located on Third Street. 

“Finally. It’s been a bumpy, bumpy road,” remarked David Fletcher, of Fletcher Studio, a Dogpatch-based design firm that helped craft the renovation, noting the six-year span between initial conception, community engagement, and groundbreaking. “There are so many hurdles to a public project. It takes years and years to get to this point.”

The park, now entirely fenced-off, will be closed during construction, estimated to take “about a year,” according to San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department’s (RPD) Alexis Ward, as reported in a January 2021 View article. 

When it reopens Esprit will boast an array of upgrades. As now, it’ll be ringed with trees, some replacements for those excised due to poor health. Instead of the previous single large meadow there’ll be two smaller fields, the northern of which’ll be designated an off-leash dog area with about half the natural grass replaced with synthetic turf, an effort to ensure it remains useable in the face of the ravages of paws. The earthen pathway surrounding the park will be paved, making it American Disability Act-compliant. Exercise stations will be placed around the perimeter; seating areas expanded. 

The southern meadow has been designated dog-free. Canines will be allowed on paths bisecting the park and ringing its border.

Throughout the public input stage, the conflict between the park as a place for dogs or for people – particularly children, the parents of which worry about the often too close and unwelcome interaction between child and canine and frequently present errant dog droppings – has figured prominently. Off-leash dogs were prohibited at Esprit, though that didn’t stop people from unleashing their dogs. 

An online search for ‘Esprit Park’ reinforces the common misconception that the commons is a dog park. 

“This park is an amazing dog park and great exercise park for people!,”  reports Google reviews. 

“Pretty cute dog park,” reads a Yelp review.

Though the southern meadow has been designated a dog-free “family meadow,” that doesn’t mean that it’ll actually be free of dogs, a point highlighted by Irma Lewis, president of Friends of Esprit Park, a park advocacy group. 

Under municipal guidelines, licensed service animals – such as seeing-eye dogs – and “support animals” are allowed in public buildings and spaces, including Esprit Park’s dog-free zone. While a service animal is defined as a dog – or miniature horse – that’s been rigorously trained to perform a specific task, a support animal can be any species and requires no training. San Francisco stopped registering emotional support animals in 2022; however, there’s no distinction between service and support animals in terms of their right to access public spaces. In all cases, service and support animals must be “under control,” meaning “house-trained” and “in most cases…[on] a leash.”  

Lewis, accompanied by her dog, which stood calmly amongst a crowd of roughly 90 people at the groundbreaking ceremony, noted key differences between dog owners. She drew a distinction between a hypothetical senior that brings a canine to the park on a daily walk for personal exercise as compared with a dog owner that uses Esprit to exercise their animal. The senior, Lewis observed, “doesn’t need to be around running dogs,” indicating the importance of having a place for an owner and their dog to enjoy without being subject to more energetic animal behavior, as is the case in an off-leash dog area. 

Lewis hoped that signage clearly demarcating off-leash from non-off-leash areas will lead to an improved park experience.  

“It’s really important to make it a place for neighbors who want to share the space,” Lewis said.

“From friction comes diamonds,” said Phil Ginsburg, RPD General Manager, at the groundbreaking, acknowledging varied park needs and perspectives. “You are engaged and that is a sign about how important this space is to this community. If every neighborhood had the kind of civic engagement, and passion, and caring about our public spaces that this community models, I think our City would be a better place.” 

“It was a long road to get here,” Walton said. “People power is how we get things done in this community…we are going to see this space become more amazing than it already is.”

“This has not been an easy road,” said Francesca Vega, Vice Chancellor of the University of California, San Francisco. “I want to thank you for your engagement, for your brutal honesty.”

“One of my mother’s favorite expressions was: ‘the difference between involvement and commitment [is], if you look at a plate of bacon and eggs, the chicken is involved, but the pig was committed.’ I look around here, and all I see are committed people,” Julie Christensen, Executive Director of the Dogpatch and NW Potrero Hill Green Benefit District, said. 

Melissa, Bonnie, and Kristin had their dogs laying leisurely by their feet during the ceremony. Melissa said she’d been coming to the park daily for more than five years, led by her pet, Lola. The three friends said Esprit has created a community of dog owners, with both people and animals making friends. 

“Lola loves the park,” said Kristin.

Nikita Khetan of Red Bridge school, whose students assisted in the groundbreaking, was asked whether the presence of dogs in Esprit Park had ever prompted concerns. Khetan declined to characterize dogs as threatening, instead remarking that “we are always alert to aspects of a public area,” while noting that Crane Cove Park is used by the school more frequently since it’s closer to campus. 

Departing the groundbreaking, the sense optimism in the air was tempered, only slightly from your correspondent’s perspective, by a shoe bearing the unmistakable imprint, and smell, of something that shouldn’t have been left on the grass.