Grassroots Organization Advocates for Dog-Friendly Policies at Esprit Park

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When the San Francisco Planning Department’s Central Waterfront-Dogpatch Public Realm Plan released preliminary blueprints for Esprit Park improvements last spring, some park users were alarmed by proposals to restrict off-leash dogs to a small section of the space.

At 1.8 acres, Esprit Park is Dogpatch’s largest green space, frequented by dog owners, who tend to allow their pets free run of its grassy meadow. Off-leash dogs are legally prohibited inside the park, a rule that’s widely overlooked; Esprit is well-known as an open play area for canines. Occasionally, however, complaints about uncontrolled animals are made; park rangers show up to distribute tickets.

The Public Realm Plan schematics—which, according to project manager Robin Abad Ocubillo, are intended to inspire discussion, not to represent a final Esprit Park design—sought to formalize the off-leash dog presence within an enclosure on the park’s central-northern end.  In the illustrations, formal plazas with seating mark northwest and southeast corner entryways; a picnic area abuts Minnesota Street, above a “natural play area” for children, who, according to the appended notes, feel “unsafe” in the park as it stands, due to “the amount of dogs.” Developed at a series of public workshops, the design reflects concerns raised by the Dogpatch Neighborhood Association, Dogpatch & Northwest Potrero Hill Green Benefits District and Potrero Boosters.

According to Dogpatch resident Robin Evans, the public workshops weren’t sufficiently inclusive. The San Francisco Planning Department made no effort to publicize the meetings at the park itself, she claimed, and as a result, the park’s regular users were omitted from the process. In Evans’s view, dog owners who comprise Esprit Park’s core constituency deserve a say in the fate of the “neighborhood treasure” they visit daily; or, in many cases, three or four times a day.

Over the summer, Evans, along with Irma Lewis, Susan Fitch, and other Dogpatch residents, founded Toes and Paws for Green Space “aiming to promote inclusiveness at Potrero Hill and Dogpatch parks for all members of the neighborhood.” They distributed surveys at Esprit Park to see what other users wanted for the park, and built a website. Within a few months, the group had accumulated roughly 80 members on its listserv; last month they held their first public meeting at Sports Basement on Bryant Street.

According to Evans, Lewis, and Fitch, the small dog run in Ocubillo’s blueprint wouldn’t be large enough to accommodate the park’s canine population, which can number as many as 30 in the early evenings. They emphasized that a restrictive dogs-only area of artificial turf would be unfriendly to dogs – which “love grass” – and their owners, who, they insisted, enjoy Esprit Park as a shared play-space where adults, kids, and pets mingle.

Many Toes and Paws members value Esprit Park as a community gathering place – or “town hall,” as one participate put it – where they chat with their friends while throwing Frisbees for their pups. Wary of being portrayed as an advocacy group for dogs, they conceive of themselves as fighting for park users, and want to share Dogpatch’s green spaces “in a way that is fair to everybody,” according to Lewis.

They believe dog owners constitute a significant element of the community and, like tennis and softball players, deserve recreation areas that serve their needs. “It’s not dogs who go to the park; it’s people who go to the park with dogs,” Fitch said.

From Toes and Paws’ perspective, Esprit Park, in its current state, fulfills the demands of this subgroup: it became a dog park because Dogpatch needed one.  Any major effort to reengineer Esprit to create new usage habits would likely damage the social health of a space that’s maintained organically by existing users, it claims. “When there is a crackdown [on off-leash dogs], and the rangers come, people clear out, and it takes probably 24 hours for tents to show up,” noted Lewis. “We would like safe spaces to meet with each other and play with our dogs and socialize with our neighbors. I think what gets lost is what happens in our absence. Our numbers bring safety to the park.”

Toes and Paws isn’t opposed to a park redesign, identifying the need for “a water fountain” and “more lighting,” but it believes that, in the event of a reconceptualization of the space, a full half of the land—preferably the south side of the meadow—should be designated as off-leash dog space. They point to the division at Duboce Park as a potential model.

Evans cautioned that “a balkanized field of separate user areas” would damage Esprit Park’s pastoral atmosphere. She hopes that people without dogs will be accommodated within any future park iteration, but contended that attempting to cram every variety of usage into Esprit’s small acreage would be misguided. She wondered whether the “concrete plazas” envisioned for coffee drinkers in the Dogpatch Public Realm Plan are necessary, given construction of the Dogpatch Arts Plaza on Indiana Street, and whether Esprit Park needs a children’s play area when a new one was just built two blocks away at Mariposa Park.

Toes and Paws wants a broader accounting of growing recreational needs in Dogpatch, where local infrastructure hasn’t kept pace with rapid population growth. The group’s vision extends beyond Esprit Park. Their goal is to help park users in Dogpatch consistently engage with the entities that’ll determine the future of their community’s green spaces—including the Planning Department, Eastern Neighborhoods Citizens Advisory Committee, Green Benefits District, Dogpatch Neighborhood Association, and San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department—and with private developers, who they believe must be urged to make positive contributions to the neighborhood landscape.

Member Gaynor Strachan Chun postulated that the most significant problem of the moment is Esprit Park’s physical well-being. Since the Esprit Corporation gave the parcel to the City in 2001, budgetary restraints have reduced the level of care given to it.  A private gardening staff once maintained lush vegetation and San Francisco’s only grass tennis court. Today, two of the park’s redwoods are dying, and the grass, which is patchy and muddy due to “irrigation challenges” presented by the area’s serpentine soil – as well, possibly, intensive use by dogs – functions as a breeding ground for mosquitos.

Toes and Paws estimates that restoring the park’s health—by replacing its dirt, re-sodding, and replanting—will be a costly and time-consuming endeavor that, when temporary closures inevitably occur, will bring into focus the need for additional parks in Dogpatch.