Dog owner eyes an area near downtown for a fenced park

However, one of the site's namesakes is less than happy about the idea

January 22, 2010 

If not for the wooden sign, few would know that the snow-covered empty land on A Street is a city park.

Neighbors mainly stay away. Some say the park is a drinking spot for homeless people, who sometimes pass out there in the summer. A young homeless woman was found dead in the park in August. Her boyfriend said they had shared a half-gallon of Monarch vodka with another man the night before.

Now some residents want to transform Earl and Muriel King Park into the city's first fenced dog park, the only official one near downtown.

"To take a dark, dark place and make it a place the community wants to be -- the dog park is the answer," said Christopher Constant, who has three dogs and is leader of the effort.

Anchorage already has five parks designated by the Anchorage Assembly as places where dogs can legally run and play off the leash. The closest ones to downtown are a good five miles away.

King Park is small, just over 2 acres. There's a small patch of birch and cottonwood trees, a bench, a trash can and not much else. The park, along A Street north of 13th Avenue, is in an area dense with apartments and condos and single-family houses.

Constant has hurdles to climb and people to win over before the dog park happens, perhaps starting with the park's namesake, Muriel King, a longtime area resident who still lives nearby.

When told about the idea, King didn't like it one bit. She and her late husband made the park happen many years ago. She said they had always wanted the park to be developed for children, with sandboxes and swings and slides, though play equipment never was installed. Their idea was a tot park, not a dog park, which she equates to a dog bathroom.

"It's not very complimentary just to be named a dog park, King Dog Park," she said. "We didn't have animals. How about putting that -- letting dogs have their privileges on the Park Strip? It's not very nice, is it?"

King, a co-owner of Guardian Security Systems Inc., said she doesn't like that people drink there but "would prefer that it be a place for homeless, rather than for animals. I think there's a little priority there."

Out of respect for Earl King, the park should stay as it is, she said.

Park supporters said they intend to talk to her and hope she'll change her opinion. Constant said at least three playgrounds are within a short walk of that park already.

DOGS FREE TO RUN

Dog parks let canines romp and run at speeds impossible on a leash, supporters say. The freewheeling play time socializes them. Owners can practice getting their dogs to come on command. With no fenced official dog park in town, some people go to fenced ball fields, where their dogs can run but not run off.

People at dog parks generally do a good job of cleaning up after their own dogs and dealing with fellow dog owners who do not, said Kayla Epstein, president of Anchorage Unleashed, which pushed for the original five dog parks back in 2003. The group supports the dog park plan for King Park, she said.

Dog park culture makes it unacceptable to not clean up, Constant said.

"What I have observed at dog parks is the vast majority of patrons are very thoughtful and conscientious about cleaning up and leaving it as good as they found it," said Assembly Chairman Patrick Flynn, who represents downtown Anchorage.

He said Constant's dream of a downtown dog park is worth considering and is likely to be supported by many in the neighborhood. He knows neighbors are tired of people drinking and sleeping in the park. Some residents asked him to get benches removed from the park because they had become "an attractive nuisance." Now just one bench remains.

Some residents already walk their dogs in the park and some let them off leash too. Some said the homeless drinkers are to be expected and don't bother them. But the downtown dog park is still a good idea, they said.

Anchorage's existing off-leash areas are all in multi-use parks and most are heavily used. One of the busiest, University Lake Park, draws skiers and cyclists along the same trails where dogs run free. Sometimes there are conflicts with people who don't like loose dogs coming up to them, said Holly Spoth-Torres, park development manager for the city. But more typically, there's a "friendly balance" among the different users, she said.

With no special city money to maintain and improve the dog parks, volunteers check to make sure they are kept clean. They empty the trash cans of what dog owners scoop up and haul the loads to a central location for park staff to pick up, Spoth-Torres said.

THE ACTIVIST

Constant, a fundraiser and one-time state House candidate, a few years ago painted a mural celebrating the community on the back of the Gambell Street Carrs store.

Now he's turned his attention to his hope for a neighborhood dog park. He's working on a site plan, going door to door and trying to get support from community councils. The dog park would need to be fenced, he said, because it would be along busy A Street and also because some dogs might dart off in an unfenced park.

He went before the South Addition Community Council on Thursday. Residents had a lot of questions. He said he'd be back.

"The neat thing about Chris is that he's really doing his best to do this right," Flynn said.

Constant said he's gone before the city Animal Control advisory board already and will need approvals from the city Parks and Recreation Commission, the Anchorage Assembly and maybe other city entities, especially if a parking lot and sidewalk are put in. Street parking now is mainly on 12th Avenue, off Cordova Street. Spoth-Torres said the project may also need approval from the Urban Design Commission.

Helping Constant with the project is Paul Fuhs, a former state commerce commissioner who has lived in the area for more than 50 years. Fuhs has a Keeshond -- a medium-sized breed -- named Shane and a 2-year-old named Hazel. Downtown really needs a fenced dog park, he said. As it stands, the park isn't a place he'd let his child play.

"It will really, really change the character of the area," Fuhs said.

Anchorage Unleashed hosted a meeting recently at Anchorage Animal Care & Control to gauge interest. More than a dozen dog lovers showed up. A man whose Labs tend to chase moose at the unfenced dog parks. A woman who uses a wheelchair and wants to let her service dog run and play off leash but needs a fenced spot and a sidewalk. Owners of little dogs who say there needs to be a fence within a fence.

Constant scrawled notes. If the project gets approved, supporters will raise money for fences and gates, he said. A football-field-size grassy area would remain unfenced to keep part of the park as is.


Find Lisa Demer online at adn.com/contact/ldemer or call 257-4390.

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