Barking over dog leash rules in Battery Park

Photo by Downtown Dog NYC. Members of Downtown Dog NYC at a cleanup event in the Battery.
Photo by Downtown Dog NYC.
Members of Downtown Dog NYC at a cleanup event in the Battery.

BY YANNIC RACK  |  When Joseph Zaccaria leaves his apartment in the Financial District to take his boxer, Bailey, for one of her daily walks, he heads south to The Battery. But instead of letting his pooch run free in the park, he walks straight through to the East River waterfront and never even takes the leash off.

“If I want to take her off the leash, I get in the car and take her to Brooklyn, to Prospect Park,” Zaccaria said, adding that he makes the trip once or twice a week, depending on his work schedule.

Driving to walk your dog may seem extreme, but the city Parks Dept. has a strict policy against off-leash activities in The Battery (formerly Battery Park).

That’s why, earlier this month, Zaccaria appeared before Community Board 1’s Financial District Committee to make the case for a trial period of off-leash rules in the park. He was supported by over a dozen fellow dog owners sporting the bright orange T-shirts of Downtown Dog NYC, a neighborhood group whose online petition for the cause has garnered over 400 signatures so far.

“We’re trying to bring this back and really show that the neighborhood has changed a lot,” Zaccaria told the committee members. “The number of families in the neighborhood is up, families with dogs.”

Downtown Express photo by Yannic Rack Mike Picardo walking a client’s dog in the Battery. In the background, the fenced off Woodland.
Downtown Express photo by Yannic Rack
Mike Picardo walking a client’s dog in the Battery. In the background, the fenced off Woodland.

The Parks Dept. permits off-leash activities during specified hours at almost 80 green spaces throughout the city, but not The Battery.

“We’re not asking for anything unusual or out of the ordinary,” Zaccaria said. “Just what everybody else has privilege to.”

Ro Sheffe, the committee’s chairperson, welcomed Zaccaria’s pitch.

“You’re going to be preaching to the choir,” he said even before the discussion had started. “We’ve gone on record supporting this initiative in the past, and we will do it next month,” he added later, a nod to the next committee meeting on Nov. 4, when the group is expected to make its plea directly to Bill Castro, the Manhattan borough commissioner for the Parks Dept.

This is the second time that dog owners have pushed the issue before the board. In November of 2010, another group, the Downtown Dog Owners Association, was successful in getting a resolution passed that recommended a trial period in the park, but nothing ever came of it.

Zaccaria said that, then as now, residents had let their dogs run free on the park’s main lawn for years before they started getting tickets.

“Although off-leash activities in Battery Park have never been officially permitted, until June 2010, such activities on the Big Lawn were not generally the subject of the issuance of summonses, even though Parks Enforcement Police officers were often present during times of off-leash activities,” the C.B. 1 resolution read five years ago.

According to Zaccaria, the whole process essentially reset itself after Hurricane Sandy wrecked havoc to the park in 2012.

“We had historically used it and we had no issue. It was kind of an unwritten rule that before 9 a.m. nobody really gave you a problem,” Zaccaria said. After two undisturbed years, he stopped using the park around 10 months ago, when enforcement resumed.

The Battery Oval, a three-acre lawn in the center of the park, is currently closed.

“I’m going to be frank with you, we are never going to want dogs on that lawn,” Hope Cohen, The Battery Conservancy’s chief operating officer, told the dog owners at the committee meeting.

Although she was more open to a potential compromise in the Woodland, the main area of the park where residents used to take their dogs, Cohen nonetheless expressed concern that it would turn into a dog run if off-leash rules were established —potentially ruining the experience for the millions of visitors enjoying the park every year.

“There are certain kinds of things that you don’t want to happen to a lawn that you want to make accessible to the rest of the public,” she said. “Keep in mind, the very same reason that you’re making this plea, the limited space – that’s limited space for people, too.”

Cohen said the maintenance problems caused by dogs trampling flower beds and digging “mud holes” would fall to the conservancy. But she said the Parks Dept.  nonetheless has the last word on issues in The Battery.

“This is a Parks decision, but I’m happy to say that we fully support the Parks position that there is no space in The Battery to segregate off a dog run,” Cohen said.

A Parks spokesperson said the agency is “reviewing the request for dog off-leashing in The Battery.”

The seven-acre Woodland, which also contains an urban farm and bikepath, has been fenced off since this spring while the conservancy, which manages the park, is making renovations. The grassy sections are expected to reopen by next summer, according to Warrie Price, the conservancy’s founder and president, who declined to comment on the off-leash issue.

Price said the last sod of the Oval was planted in August and will need a year to settle, although she hopes to reopen it by next May. The lawn will then host occasional concerts but will otherwise be publicly accessible – just not to dogs.

The dog owners say that this leaves them with few options.

Of the seven dog runs in C.B. 1, only one — the Fish Bridge Park Dog Run on Dover St. — is operated by the Parks Dept. The members of Downtown Dog NYC argue that it is the smallest out of all the 123 dog runs and parks with off-leash access in the city. They also say that capacity at the six privately run facilities is limited to an average of less than a dozen dogs, which is not enough with population growth in the area of almost 250 percent from 2000 to 2010 alone.

Zaccaria said he’s close to the dog run located under the F.D.R. Drive, but doesn’t like to use it because it is asphalt and well maintained. Without off-leash rules in The Battery, he plans to keep taking Bailey to Brooklyn “to give the dog the exercise that she needs so she doesn’t destroy my apartment.

“[My wife and I] met three of our best couple friends via dogs, so it’s not just a dog thing, it’s … one of the few places where we have a sense of community.”

And pet owners are not the only ones that would appreciate the off-leash rules.

On a recent Monday afternoon, Mike Picardo was walking Jackson, an energetic Cockapoo, through the park, snapping pictures of the pooch on his phone as they went.

Picardo lives Downtown and works as a dog walker for Paws on Pine, a pet service agency on Pine St. He said he walks about a dozen dogs from the Financial District every day.

“I don’t always take them off the leash since I’m not the owner and there’s just certain safety measures I take,” he said. “But I’m all for off-leash rules, especially in the early morning. I don’t see the harm, as long as people are responsible. It seems like there’s plenty of space here.”

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