Columbia Heights residents have worked for years to save their neighborhood dog park. They led letter-writing campaigns, signed petitions, lobbied lawmakers and ran a social media campaign featuring photos of pups pleading city officials to “save my dog park.”
When the District approved a budget last year allocating $1.5 million to buy the parcel of land from Metro and establish an official dog park, many thought their work was done.
Then the “for sale” sign went up.
As the city now prepares to offer $2.1 million to acquire — and “save” — the park, critics have questioned the wisdom of funneling millions into a neighborhood dog run, rather than using the money to address citywide issues, such as affordable housing.
“Using this space as a dog park is a perfectly logical use if it’s not up for sale,” said Nicholas Finio, associate director of the Center for Smart Growth at the University of Maryland, who co-wrote a blog post that asks, “Is it unethical to build a dog park on prime real estate in housing-strapped DC?”
“The question that has to be asked is: Should the city be spending a limited city budget on acquiring a new park for such a specific use, or should the city spend that money on affordable housing, or not spend any money and let a developer put housing there?” he said.
The park, a plot of dirt at 11th Street and Park Road NW, sits on land owned by Metro. It is one of eight parcels the transit agency put up for sale last month.
D.C. Council member Brianne K. Nadeau (D-Ward 1), who represents the area, said questions about how the city spends money aren’t new.
“We had those conversations back around budget season, and what I heard from the community is that this is a public amenity that we think is very important, and preserving the green space is really important,” Nadeau said. “Since this is already being used as a dog park, if it goes away, we’re actually taking something away from our residents. You have to balance the needs of a community.”
Nadeau for months lobbied for the extra $600,000 needed to make a market rate offer on the land. Eventually, she got it.
The office of the deputy mayor for planning and economic development made a $2.1 million bid last week, long after the city was given first dibs on the property last year. At the time, officials said, the city didn’t have enough money set aside to buy the parcel at its appraised value.
Now it’s on the open market. Bids are due by the end of February.
“I’ve been really pessimistic about it because once you’re in open bidding, putting out the absolute lowest they can accept doesn’t usually pan out,” Nadeau said. “We’re kind of in wait-and-see mode.”
The land on which the dog park sits, a 7,355-square-foot plot, is zoned for a variety of uses, including business and housing.
The buyer will be required to maintain two large grates on the lot, which provide ventilation for trains on Metro’s Green and Yellow lines — a mandate that Nadeau said she hopes could help deter private developers.
For dog owners who frequent the park, it is more than a place to let their four-legged friends run and play — it’s become a community gathering space.
“People who value the park value it because they get to meet their neighbors there,” said Lori Robertson, who helps run 11th and Bark, a group organized by regulars to advocate for the park. “I know it’s a dog park, but it’s really about the people who bring their dogs there, and allowing them to have a space where they can build community — that’s what we really don’t want to lose.”
Although the lot was not built to function as a dog park, it has been used as one since 2009. For it to continue, though, it needs work.
If the city acquires the land, Nadeau said, the park would require improvements to bring it up to code.
The park has no water source and poor drainage. Dog owners bring their own jugs and bowls, or fill up at nearby restaurants that have agreed to help. To enter and exit the leash-free zone, dog owners pass through a single gate, which is less secure than the double-gate enclosures required at most dog parks.
Robertson and her husband, Eric Gronning, drafted plans to renovate the park using community donations for grass, better fencing, drainage and running water. They also want to set up a sitting area on the other side of the fence for people who don’t have a dog but want to enjoy the space.
The renovation plans were drafted years ago, Robertson said, but they didn’t want to begin work if the property was going to be sold.
Metro spokesman Ian Jannetta declined to comment on the level of interest in the parcel, noting that the sale is being managed by NAI Michael, a commercial real estate broker. NAI Michael didn’t respond to a request for comment Tuesday regarding interest in the land.
The proceeds from the sale — along with the seven other plots Metro is selling — would contribute to the agency’s capital and operating budgets while helping to reduce maintenance costs, officials said.
“Our riders want affordable, cost-effective public transit and to do that we need to find new sources of revenue and efficiencies,” Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld said in a statement. “We are turning over every stone, looking at all of our assets to get the most out of every dollar and ensure continued financial stability.”
In case the city loses the bid, Nadeau said, her office has been exploring other spaces that might be turned into a comparable park for dog owners. She didn’t specify where, other than to say that she had been looking at options on “District-owned land nearby.”
“I made a commitment that I would preserve this dog park one way or another,” she said.
Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Kent C. Boese, who ran against Nadeau in last year’s Democratic primary, has said the city should explore cheaper alternatives for the dog park, including moving it elsewhere in Columbia Heights.
The dog owners don’t want it to move. The park, they said, has become a second home, and part of their daily routines.
But Robertson said it would be better to move the park than to lose it altogether.
“Of course, we would be interested in the option of finding another space if that’s what it comes to,” she said. “We don’t have a lot of park space in general in Columbia Heights, and once you lose a space like this, you’re not going to get it back.”
Update: The story was updated to reflect that while Kent C. Boese wants the city to explore cheaper alternatives, he isn’t against the existing dog park.