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While already notorious for being park-poor, Santa Ana has the distinction of being one of only six cities out of the 100 most populous in the U.S. that don’t have any dog parks, according to a recent study put out by The Trust for Public Land.
It is a reality not lost on Erica Li.
A resident of the Artist Village apartments in the heart of downtown, Li must go to Irvine if she wants to take her dog to a dog park. “It would be nice if I could just take him right over there in the morning,” she said.
By “over there,” Li means Birch Park, which is on Third Street, just a few blocks from her apartment.
She is one of 447 people who have signed a Change.org petition calling for a section of the park, which is the city’s oldest, to be converted to a dog park. The effort is being led by the downtown business-booster group Downtown Inc.
It is a way to “help reactivate the park and attract nearby residents to visit downtown,” said Ryan Smolar, Downtown Inc.’s lead consultant, during a recent visit to the park. He added that it would also help to alleviate safety concerns of residents stemming from the congregation of homeless people at the park.
“There’s a happy hour and a sad hour [at Birch Park],” Smolar said, referring to drug use by homeless people that he says sometimes results in violence. “This park is not being used right and a dog park would make it better.”
Standing at the edge of Birch Park, Smolar points to the southwest section of the grass field next to the Santa Ana Senior Center as a potential spot for a dog park.
Disagreement Over Location
However, while Smolar has quite a few residents and business owners backing his idea, there are also a number of people who think Birch Park is a bad fit for a dog park. Among them is Santa Ana Parks and Recreation Director Gerardo Mouet.
Mouet agrees that Santa Ana needs a dog park, but says Birch Park is not the place to put it. He believes that a better way to “activate” it is to “program it as the park that it is, the oldest park in Santa Ana.”
He explains how more events, like Shakespeare in the Park, concerts, and festivals will attract more people and “honor how the park used to be.”
As far as the park’s safety is concerned, Mouet says it is either “truly unsafe” or its “perceived as unsafe.” If it’s the former, then “the police chief will need to get involved.” If it’s the latter, then “the park needs to be programmed in a way” that can get rid of this perception.
Francine Harris, the president of the Santa Ana Senior Club and a member of the senior center’s advisory board, is with Mouet in his opposition of the dog park plan. “There is just no room in this park for it, it’s too too too too small,” Harris said.
Harris said she is also frustrated because Downtown Inc. never reached out to the center about their thoughts on a dog park. “Downtown Inc. should have had the decency to come and talk to the seniors [about adding a dog park] but they are just thinking of themselves,” Harris said.
The advisory board is planning to start a petition that is against putting a dog park at Birch Park. And, she said, “what about the dog poop — is Downtown Inc. going to come and pick it up?”
As far as the homeless people that congregate at the park, Harris said that they don’t cause any trouble to the center. She even leads prayer and bible study with some of them.
“They don’t bother us and we don’t bother them,” Harris said.
There might, however, be a compromise. Both Mouet and Smolar mentioned that a section of Birch Street on the eastern border of the park that is currently fenced off and is being used by the Artist Village Apartments. They both agree that the section of the street would be a promising spot for a dog park.
Dog Parks Key to ‘Well-Rounded’ System
The Trust For Public Land considers dog parks as one of the four components that represent an adequate park system, the other three being playgrounds, recreational and senior centers and basketball hoops.
Peter Harnik, the director of the Center for City Park Excellence at The Trust For Public Land, said while there are other components to a good park, like soccer fields, there are two factors that have to be considered when determining a city’s score.
“We have to look at what are important and what are countable in a park system,” said Harnik.
As one of the fastest growing park types in the country, dog parks are not only more popular but according to Harnik, they are an example of a Parks and Recreation Department’s willing to be more innovative and make the changes necessary to have a well-rounded and strong park system.
This isn’t the first time that Santa Ana has played with the idea of adding a dog park to its park system.
Ron Ono, the city’s Administrative Services Manager, said a plan was presented to the Parks and Recreation board to add “a dog park at the Santa Ana Freeway and Garden Grove Freeway.” The plan was presented in both April of 2011 and 2015, however, no action was taken.
Harris also supports this location as a potential dog park instead of putting one at Birch Park. She plans to bring the plan back up again at a future Santa Ana city council meeting.
Some say that given the city’s overall park-poor status, officials should not be focusing on dog parks at all.
Santa Ana only has 1.3 basketball hoops per 10,000 residents, according to The Trust For Public Land’s recent study. Playgrounds have the same ratio as basketball hoops while recreational and senior centers are even lower with only 0.5 per 20,000 residents.
“There needs to be more parks for kids than for dogs,” said Kevin Cabrera, Director of the Heritage Museum of Orange County.
Cabrera explained that the Heritage Museum hosts a “Dog Days” event every third Wednesday of the month, when they open up parts of the property in the late afternoon for people to bring their dogs out to play.
James Stapleton, a community activist, agrees that the park is too small. Stapleton also sees it as an attempt to push the homeless out of the park, but he believes that isn’t right because the park is a “safe haven for them, especially since they have no place to stay.”
Kaitlin Washburn is a news intern from the University of Missouri. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.