Mayor John D’Amico’s comments featured in the Los Angeles Times and on WEHOville have certainly wacked hornet’s nests as his critics and defenders have rushed to do battle. Is West Hollywood short changing the needs of dog “guardians” or is the Mayor childophobic? Unfortunately a lot of emotion is being invested in trying to play to constituencies that need not be divided.
Before we forget, the issue is whether we should have a dog park in West Hollywood Park, not who loves or does not love children. Or who loves dogs.
It seems to me that there is posturing on both sides that is distracting us from an important discussion about both the future of West Hollywood Park, but also about how we make decisions in a diverse community whose recreational needs are hardly met by the limited amount of green space in our small city. We can have different priorities but they don’t necessarily have to be competing. Creating a space for dogs in the park does not necessarily have to come at the expense of the needs of children or other park users.
Let’s start off with the positive. The West Hollywood Park Master Plan has substantially increased the amount of green space and useable recreational areas in the park. But the recreational needs of the community are still far from being met.
Those unmet recreational needs would include community gardeners, adult recreational needs, including those focused on gay men, and the needs of our canine constituents.
Pets are part of our family. For many people in West Hollywood, their pets may be their only family. I don’t know where the Los Angeles Times got its numbers, but I suspect that West Hollywood has more dogs per capita than almost any place in the state. But to say that setting aside land for a dog park puts the needs of animals over people is both insensitive and simply incorrect.
I was on the City Council when we first made Hart Park an off-leash area for dogs. I will admit that I was skeptical that it was appropriate to take limited park space and dedicate it to our canine community. But Council member Paul Koretz and community activist Chris Patrouch ultimately convinced a wary City Council to open the park to off-leash dogs on a trial basis.
Needless to say it was a huge success. As it turned out, the green space at Hart Park was under utilized. The only attraction of the park was the wonderful actors’ workshop that was conducted on site. Once the area was dedicated as a dog park, the under utilized green space suddenly exploded to life.
But in my experience Hart Park was not about pandering to dogs or their guardians. It was about community building. I met most of my neighbors when I was working in my front yard and people came by walking their dogs.
In Hart Park neighbors who might never otherwise talk to each other bond and find common interests. Anyone who believes that dog parks are just about dogs just doesn’t get it. Dog parks build communities. I know of few municipal programs that have fostered a sense of shared experience and community as has Hart Park. How many places in West Hollywood do you see people of diverse ages, genders, incomes and orientations come together and form friendships?
What is strange is the City has simply refused to acknowledge the success of Hart Park by replicating it. While there are plenty of things we can do to improve Hart Park, that does not take anything way from its current value to the City and our residents.
I don’t see a natural conflict in sharing West Hollywood Park. After all, plenty of families with children have dogs. Dogs and kids are not an unnatural mix. A well-defined and regularly maintained off-leash area could be accommodated within the existing Master Plan without infringing on the recreational needs of children or any other members of the community.
But if Mayor D’Amico is serious about a re-visiting of the Master Plan to accommodate an-off leash area, he is going to have his work cut out for him. A reconsideration of the Master Plan will be a hard sell to at least a couple of Council members. West Hollywood Park as conceived under the plan has many open vistas and is undoubtedly visually pleasing. But parks are meant to be used rather than admired. Some of the Council members have consistently put form over function whenever recreational space is considered. You just have to look at the City’s unsuccessful “pocket parks” such as the one on Havenhurst to understand that certain folks at City Hall have a limited and unimaginative view of the community’s recreational needs.
The “Great Lawn” of the West Hollywood Park is primarily reserved for two events: Gay Pride and Elton John’s Oscar party. Without disrespecting either event, it seems a bit like the tail wagging the dog when it comes to designing a park that addresses our community’s diverse needs and recreational demands. Mayor D’Amico is going to face opposition from staff and members of the Council who are not interested in re-opening the Plan to public debate.
Creating an off-leash area in West Hollywood Park is a great idea, and I hope one the City Council will accommodate. But it is not a gay issue, and let’s not make it one. This is an issue where Mayor D’Amico can demonstrate leadership and re-focus the debate on the needs of the community at large.
But for all the folks who have been complaining about a lack of off-leash areas in the city and those who may feel that this a dog park is incompatible with the current uses of West Hollywood Park, you will have no one to blame but yourselves if you don’t come to City Council meetings and let your voice be heard.
Let’s have a passionate debate on this issue without the divisive rhetoric.