City plans first fenced dog park to boost troubled Midtown area

Rosemary Shinohara

Residents of a Midtown neighborhood are afraid to picnic or play in a city park on Arctic Boulevard at 31st Avenue because it has a history of being used by people doing drugs, using alcohol or engaging in prostitution.

Here's the solution community members have come up with: Turn part of the Arctic Benson Park into a fenced dog park to draw in more people doing healthy activities, and make it less inviting for unsavory elements.

The plan was approved earlier this month by the city Parks and Recreation Commission and the city's Animal Control Advisory Board. Now city parks officials are researching whether it also needs to go to the Assembly, which created the five existing off-leash dog parks in Anchorage by ordinance, said city parks superintendent Holly Spoth-Torres.

If it clears that last hurdle, the city should have its first fenced dog park in July, Spoth-Torres said.

"People are really excited about it," said Kayla Epstein of Anchorage Unleashed, which advocates for dog parks. A fenced park has been on the group's list from the beginning, she said.

She has a Shih Tzu, Tuffy, that would enjoy a fenced area, she said.

Pamela Corso said she's disabled, and there's nowhere she can take her three dogs now where she can get access, and doesn't have to worry about the dogs getting too far away. Her Great Danes are Sabio and Fifi, and the Shar-Pei-Husky mix is Izzy. She lives in East Anchorage, but would take her trio to the Midtown park, she said.

"As a taxpayer I'm really thrilled we're getting a little chunk of land for our dogs," Corso said.

Arctic Benson Park is two acres, and about half of is filled with trees. Brush has been cleared out so there's good visibility. It has play equipment and an open play field.

The park received an "F" in a 2011 evaluation by volunteers and parks staff. The grade is based on cleanliness, safety, structure, appearance and function.

An Anchorage Park Foundation information sheet described the evaluators' findings this way: "Currently they feel it is terribly unsafe and being overtaken by drugs, alcohol, prostitution and people living there."

"Unwelcoming" and "scary" were two other words used to describe the place.

Karen Dechman, who lives a couple blocks away, said she was talking to police in the park one day about the problems there. "One of the officers said, 'Pave it over or put in a dog park.'"

That's where the idea came from, Dechman said. She is active in the Midtown Community Council and was a member of a park committee that worked on the plans.

The city, through the Anchorage Park Foundation, has an $83,000 grant to surround the western section of it, along Arctic, with a five-foot-high chain link fence. There will be a double-gate entry system so people can unleash their dogs in an enclosed area, then let them run free. There will be park benches inside the fence.

Dechman said the park committee would like to do more -- get water to Arctic Benson Park, improve the handicapped access and build a path from one side of the park to the other -- but so far only has money for the dog park section of it.

They may try to raise more money for it.

The Park Foundation has set a volunteer fix-it day for Arctic Benson on July 27.

It will be the only dog park in Midtown, and the smallest of the dog parks.

The existing dog parks are Connors Lake Park, at 45 acres; Far North Bicentennial Park, with two miles of off-leash area; Russian Jack Springs Park, 26 acres of off-leash area; University Lake Park, 40 acres of off-leash area, and South Anchorage Sports Park, with seven acres of off-leash area.

The city also proposes to fence a section of South Anchorage Sports Park for off-leash dogs, but first must develop a master plan for the park, Spoth-Torres said. The South Anchorage fenced area is not scheduled to be done this year, she said.

Reach Rosemary Shinohara at or 257-4340.