Who Shut the Dogs Out?
There's been a lot of barking over at the West Austin Park lately, but very little of it has been coming from the dogs that frequently romp there. Dog-owning residents of the Old West Austin neighborhood (which extends west from Lamar to West Lynn) are up in arms over a decision by the city Parks and Recreation Dept. (PARD) to turn the park into a T-ball field for five- and six-year-olds at the behest of the West Austin Youth Association. Much of the neighborhood park, situated between Ninth and 10th Streets, has functioned as an unofficial off-leash "dog park" for at least 15 years, residents say. But about four weeks ago, "all pets on leash" signs started popping up around the park, and Parks and Rec workers began leveling the pitted field, replacing grass with red clay and painting white field lines.
Neighbors say the fracas isn't so much about giving the field over to organized youth athletics as it is about taking control of a neighborhood park away from its neighbors. In fact, the dog owners wouldn't be so howling mad if the changes hadn't completely usurped the City Council-approved Old West Austin Neighborhood Plan, which called for a section of the park to be a leash-free dog area. "It's not about kids versus dogs," said dog owner and neighborhood resident Sarah Uribe. "It's about [the city] putting all this emphasis on neighborhood plans and then throwing them out the window." While it is true that approval of a neighborhood plan does not require the city to implement all its provisions, the language in the plan requires that all interested parties be consulted before changes are made -- which, according to neighbors, never happened.
"This is a case of the neighbors being muscled out of our neighborhood park by a [parks department] director who has us in his cross-hairs," said Sam Archer, who is chairman of the Old West Austin Neighborhood Association (OWANA) parks subcommittee. PARD Director Jesus Olivares "has made it clear he has no use for the neighborhood plan, and utter contempt for OWANA."
Karen Dickey, an Old West Austin resident, has spearheaded a petition drive of neighborhood dog owners. The petition, which residents are planning to present to both PARD and the council, includes the signatures of nearly 180 neighborhood residents who walk their dogs to the park on a daily basis. According to Dickey, no one in the neighborhood was aware that the park was to be transformed into a T-ball field; in fact, even the leadership of OWANA was unaware of the PARD decision. "We wanted to work together," said Dickey, "and we have as much right to that park as anyone else."
That's not how Parks and Rec sees it. "Ultimately, it is the final decision of Parks and Recreation," said PARD spokesman Mark Wieland. "No one person has decision-making authority or impact other than our director." PARD Director Olivares did not return calls from the Chronicle requesting comment.
On the other hand, Wieland said, there has been "great momentum" to turn the park into a working ballfield. That momentum seems to have been spurred, at least in part, by Louis Bratton, the former director of the West Austin Youth Association (WAYA) and an Old West Austin resident. Bratton said WAYA has been negotiating for use of the park for nearly a year, but that PARD just gave final approval to the project a little over a month ago. Bratton said WAYA involves nearly 5,000 children citywide in organized athletics like T-ball, soccer, and basketball. "The parks department thought this was the best use of the park," he said. "I'm not opposed to dogs running free there, we're just opposed to cordoning it off and losing that whole south end [of the park]. We weren't trying to step on anyone's toes. I think we can coexist."
But dog owners who congregate in the park's south end point out that by turning the park into a ballfield, PARD has made it less usable for both dog owners and ball players. "Back in the old days, the really old days, that land was a ranch, and a creek ran through [where the park is now]," said Dickey. "That's why there are all those shells and stuff down there." The park's south end is one of the lowest points in the neighborhood, and when it rains, the field often floods heavily. Dog owners said that half the south end was underwater for most of last year's record-breaking rainy winter. And when PARD leveled the ground to create the ballfield, workers covered the park's sole drainage grate. After rain last Monday morning, the park was a slippery and squishy red clay mess. "Who's going to want their kids to play here?" asked one dog owner.
And while it's still unclear whether kids will come to play at the park, dog owners were adamant that they are not going away. In fact, the "all pets on leash" signs that PARD installed have developed a habit of disappearing overnight. "I don't know how you feel about that, but we call it vandalism. That's illegal vandalism," said Wieland.
Late last week, park police began what neighbors are calling a "siege" on the dog owners. Residents who walk to the park with their dogs say park police have followed them and harassed them once they were inside the park. In fact, said Uribe, a park policeman threatened to write her a ticket for being in the park even though her dogs were leashed. "I asked him what for, and he said 'your attitude,'" she said. "This has just gone too far." Wieland said he "can't believe that is happening," adding that it "doesn't sound at all like" parks police, who he said are "dedicated people who want to protect people in the parks."
The greatest irony may be that, with the end of T-ball season just four weeks away, WAYA may not even use the park's facilities this spring. "But we are trying to encourage our coaches to go there," said Bratton.