C.B.1 says park solution is a doggone shame

BY Helaina N. Hovitz

When the first person to speak during Community Board 1’s public session asked those in support of off-leash hours to stand, half of the crowd rose to their feet. One by one, Downtown dog owners took to the podium to speak for those who couldn’t — their dogs.

For the past twenty years, dogs have been free to run off-leash across what has become known as Battery Park’s “Great Lawn,” an impressive span of grass adjacent to Whitehall Street; but all carefree canine play was brought to an abrupt halt after a crackdown in June of this year.

“One day, Pat Kirshner from the Battery Park City Parks Conservancy just showed up and started handing out fliers to warn us that dogs weren’t allowed on the lawn anymore,” explained Financial District resident Cathy Yee, a member of the Downtown Dog Owners Association, who used to take her energetic pup, Piper, to the lawn every day. “Several weeks later, Parks began issuing summonses to those of us who weren’t cooperative.”

This prompted a slew of passionate D.D.O.A. members to show up at last Tuesday’s full board meeting, as they had for the past four months, to ask for a trial period in which their dogs could once again run free. A representative from the Parks Department office also spoke during the public session and reassured the crowd that no trial period would be approved. The representative added that the city would compromise and set aside a concrete, gated area in which dogs could run free.

The Battery Park City and Financial District Committees proposed an open-ended resolution calling for the establishment of a task force to evaluate the current policy, gather and analyze data, and determine whether it would make sense to extend any off-leash privileges. The resolution asks the Parks Department to consider designating a trial period to see what impact, if any, off-leash hours would have.

The resolution passed with 25 in favor, 14 against, and one abstention.

According to residents, there is no record of dogs ever having done damage to the lawn, which is set to undergo major reconstruction in Spring 2011.

“I really don’t understand why there can’t be a trial period, considering they’re just going to tear up the lawn in six months anyway,” said Yee. “It makes perfect sense to have this trial period now.”

Residents claim that some of the fundraising events held by the Conservatory actually damage the lawn worse than the dogs ever have, or ever could.

“They’re worried about dogs? The Hubble Telescope they had back in June during the 2010 World Science Festival did so much damage, I couldn’t even play fetch with my dog because I was afraid she might trip on one of the holes and sprain her leg,” Yee explained. “And the tents they used during the fair killed the grass.”

Ro Sheffe, chair of the Financial District Committee, will head the task force, and said though he does not anticipate much cooperation from the Parks Department, the working group will continue their work either way.

“If the community feels very strongly that we should continue advocating for this, then we’ll continue,” Sheffe said. “We’ll advocate for what the majority of our constituents want, and we’re going to go ahead with the task force regardless.”

Earlier drafts of the resolution were tabled at the September and October full board meetings, the latter of which the Parks Department failed to attend. When Sheffe met with Senator Daniel Squadron several weeks ago, it was suggested that the task force find out how many 311 calls have been placed complaining about dogs running off-leash on the lawn. According to the dog owners at the meeting, virtually no residential opposition has been voiced, and the only thing standing in their way is the government.

Allowing dogs to run off-leash in grassy areas is permitted in 77 other parks citywide, and the D.D.O.A. wants the Parks Department to formally add Battery Park to the list.

“There’s no place within C.B. 1 where a dog is allowed to walk on grass,” said board member Jeff Galloway. “The prohibition isn’t just off-leash, it’s a prohibition of dogs period.”

Galloway, whose office overlooks the lawn, said it’s been virtually empty since July, and is the only area in the entire park to be fenced off. Before that, he could always spot at least a dozen dogs and their owners on the grass during the wee morning hours. As it currently stands, the closest a downtown dog can get to enjoying a bit of greenery is farther uptown along the East River or in Central Park.

The trouble is, not everyone can get their dogs uptown, as pets are not permitted to ride in taxies, buses or trains.

“For people who don’t have cars, this is really unfortunate,” said Yee. ”Sometimes I rent a car to take Piper out to Prospect Park, and it can be costly.”

Plans for the lawn have not been published on the Battery Park City Parks Conservancy’s website, leaving many asking just what it is about the projected new lawn that will make it suddenly unfit for canines.

“Conservancy and Parks have raised various issues they think will happen if they allow the dogs to run there,” said Galloway. “But right now it’s a lot of hypothetical back-and-forth. The point of the trial is to observe what happens so we can make an intelligent decision about whether it’s a good idea or not.”

As more apartment buildings go up, Galloway points out, the number of Downtown residents will increase — and so will the puppy population.

“Bringing our dogs to the lawn is a community building activity. When you talk to the people that bring their dogs there, you find they’ve met some of their best friends there,” he said. “Most people who have dogs have decided they’re going to put their roots down in this community. This type of group is something the community as a whole should value.”