‘No Goldilocks dog park’: Spokane Parks seeks to replace South Hill destination amid furor for puppy playground
Sun., Oct. 16, 2022
Chris McLaughlin sits in the shade with her dogs, Sunny and Clancy, and feeds them treats Thursday at the dog park behind Mullan Road Elementary on Spokane’s South Hill. (Jesse Tinsley/The Spokesman-Review)
Spokane Park board members are trying to appease a contingent of South Hill dog owners displaced by the construction of a new middle school and the hundreds of city residents who responded to a survey hoping for large, sprawling natural areas for their pups to play.
They’ll also have to contend with neighbors who may be upset with being fenced out of parts of city parks so dog owners have a space for their pets. The three city parks at the top of the potential dog park list: Underhill Park, upper Lincoln Park and Hazel’s Creek.
As early as later this month, city Parks Department officials will ask the nine-member board where to locate an official dog park, Spokane’s second such feature despite an estimated dog census of 150,000 within city limits. They’re starting on the South Hill, where the city and Spokane Public Schools have pledged to build a new dog park in time for completion of the new Carla Peperzak Middle School, which is being built atop vacant land on the Moran Prairie above 63rd Avenue that has been an unofficial dog park for several years.
The three locations that have risen to the top of the Parks Department list were culled from land owned not just by the Parks Department, but from other city holdings as well. It’s unclear whether any final decision will appease neighbors, who have raised concerns about overcrowding, protection of the habitat and the cumulative effect of visitors, both canine and human.
Chad Mitchell, who helped organize the group Friends of the South Hill Dog Park that took care of the unofficial property, invoked a fairy tale adage when describing the public’s response to the three options.
“There is no Goldilocks dog park,” Mitchell said.
A 107-page report delivered to the Spokane Park Board by parks staff, who researched similar installations throughout the Pacific Northwest and the country, concluded with a ranking of potential properties listed by their score on metrics identified by a public survey sent out earlier this year, and input from dog owners and those who work with dogs in each of the city’s three council districts. Those results found that a majority of respondents preferred “a larger-sized fenced natural space” for dogs to play, and that Spokane was lagging well behind cities of its size in providing the amenities that have seen a rapid growth in popularity.
The push for a larger, regional dog park is separate from efforts funded by private donations to the Spokane Parks Foundation to build a smaller amenity in Riverfront Park. The South Hill dog park will be built by Spokane Public Schools based on an agreement signed earlier this year after school construction displaced the previous park.
On the South Hill, staff identified three spots larger than 7 acres as potential sites for the next dog park. One is located in Underhill Park, another on a natural area known as Hazel’s Creek near Ferris High School and finally a 7.5-acre, unforested swath of upper Lincoln Park just off Southeast Boulevard.
The Spokane Park Board last week adopted the report as a baseline for its decision on where to place the first of three planned large, regional dog parks within the city. Spokane Parks Director Garrett Jones said he hoped to provide the board with enough information to make a determination at a special meeting to be held Oct. 24. The agreement between the city of Spokane and the school district requires completion of the dog park by April to accommodate the new construction; the middle school is scheduled to open in August.
“What we didn’t want to do is to have a decrease in level of service,” Jones said. “When that temporary park closes, we have a viable option ready to go.”
Still, Park Board members this week signaled they may delay a decision if feedback from the public isn’t decisive.
“We’re not committing to the end-of-the-month, October meeting to decide on this,” Spokane Park Board President Jennifer Ogden said at a meeting Thursday. Two more open houses are scheduled near Lincoln Park and Underhill Park this week, one a digital meeting as part of the Lincoln Heights Neighborhood Council meeting on Tuesday and the second at the Liberty Park Library event room on Wednesday.
Several residents have already expressed concern, including Sam Mace, who lives near Underhill Park and is concerned the proposed dog park to encompass the western, natural area of the neighborhood park would crowd out ballgames and force trail users to travel to other parks in the system. Mace noted that the city has already slated housing development for the southeastern edge of the park, and is concerned more visitors will mean more traffic on neighborhood streets already clogged with park users and residents.
“We can’t take another use here,” Mace said.
Jones said that site selection is just the first step in a series of decisions that will determine the look and amenities of what is built, which will include public input.
“It will have more touch points with stakeholders, through that design process,” Jones said. “Right now, we’re looking at a bunch of dashed lines.”
Mace said the problems with the Underhill site are apparent. Parking is already an issue during crowded summer evenings, with two ballfields, a cricket league and children using the nearby playground, she said. In the winter, thrill-seeking sledders careen down the steep slope on the park’s southern edge, abutting the Ben Burr Trail. While the report doesn’t specifically state the necessary amenities for a large, regional dog park, it does contemplate site improvements, including paths accessible for those with disabilities, fencing and access to water, all things that would need to be built at Underhill, Mace said.
“They haven’t figured out the details,” she said.
Mitchell said he wasn’t certain users of the former unofficial and current temporary park would want to drive down to the East Central neighborhood to use that park, which would be on 7 acres of rocky, undeveloped forest area with rudimentary trails. Those trails have frequent, and sometimes drastic, changes in slope, he noted.
“We have so many elderly people,” he said. “They need flat land. They walk in groups of two, and three, and four, and always around the perimeter.”
There’s also the problem of forcing a dog park where neighbors may not want it, Mitchell said. After working cooperatively with users of the unofficial dog park to clean up and provide repairs to any fencing that is damaged, Mitchell said it will require community cooperation to keep a dog park in working order.
“You don’t want to go down and put a dog park where everyone around them hates them,” he said.
The Hazel’s Creek property has the added challenge of including an area that the Water Department has pledged to protect from development after it was acquired in 2002 and is now used to demonstrate stormwater treatment features. Mary O’Byrne, whose mother farmed the site from 1949 until her death, said there are conservation agreements on the property that could complicate any building on the site.
“It wasn’t ever to be developed,” she said. “It’s there for the wildlife enjoyment of the neighborhood.”
Classes from Ferris High School also visit the site to learn about local ecology, O’Byrne said.
The Southgate Neighborhood Council met last week to discuss the option. Mitchell said it was apparent neighbors didn’t want a dog park there, after residents were handed out green, yellow and red dots to place next to their preferences for park location.
“There were no green dots, no yellow dots; there were only red dots,” Mitchell said.
That leaves the undeveloped portion of Lincoln Park, which Mitchell said would be his preference of what he admitted weren’t ideal options.
“The main problem is there’s nothing but rocks,” he said.
A group of advisers to the Parks Department also highlighted a lack of parking on the space, in addition to a scarcity of shade and water.
Park officials said last week they’re confident following two additional meetings they’ll have the information necessary for the Park Board to designate a site for the city’s next park.
“We’re going to the public early on this, and often,” Nick Hamad, planning and development manager for Spokane Parks, told Park Board members on Thursday. “That’s often a challenge because we don’t have fully baked ideas yet, and that can be a little messy.”
A special meeting of the Spokane Park Board is planned Oct. 24, where members could decide the South Hill location following two more open houses this week.
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