Seattle's new ruff! ruff! urban park

Downtown dogs and their owners have transformed a "crack park" into a tail-wagging frolicking place

This tiny park was meant to be an urban oasis where downtown residents could relax amid public sculpture or shoot a few baskets. Instead, it became the turf of drug dealers and prostitutes.

But now it's really gone to the dogs. And it seems in less than a week, two of those problems have been solved.

Six blocks north of Seattle's retail core, where just last week johns and streetwalkers lingered, and where addicts copped crack, visitors now get nuzzled by Mocha the Pit Bull or drooled on by Baker the Rhodesian Ridgeback. There's a different kind of regular now, of course, canines who'll do anything for a Milk Bone.

On Sunday, the city turned this third of an acre over to its canine residents, proclaiming Belltown's Regrade Park an off-leash play pen for dogs. Bipeds in the neighborhood say it already has made a night-and-day difference.

"What would you rather have in your neighborhood - a dog park or a basketball court used by drug dealers?" asks Courtney Nash, whose companion Baker, is busy making friends with Mocha and Dingo, a black mutt who returns slavishly to his owner every few minutes for a back-scratching fix.

"I used to be waiting to go to work at eight o'clock in the morning, right over there, and you'd see drug dealers here. There was prostitution," Ms. Nash explains. "You just knew this wasn't a great place."

Now at least a dozen dogs of all shapes and sizes scamper and sniff, ranging far from their owners only to sprint back, sit obediently, and wait for the hand to appear from the treat pocket. Besides dogs and owners, the only people inside the park's 5-foot-high black cyclone fence are two people reading books and eating lunch. Drug dealing? Here? Forget it.

Regrade Park is Seattle's ninth off-leash area, and while it might seem a benign area for commonsense public policy, dog parks here have been debated contentiously for 10 years.

Barbara Clemons, legislative aide to City Council President Jan Drago, answers her telephone with "Dogs Are Us," then recounts a battle that began in 1994, when the city added a pair of zealous animal control officers to enforce leash laws.

"These two officers learned very quickly where the dog groupie parks were," she remembers, "so they'd go back and cite the same owners again and again - on the same day."

Dog owners were incensed. City Council officials were inundated with complaints. Several council members maintain that of all the pressing issues - taxes, transportation, the homeless - none drew anywhere near the letters and phone calls as the debate over the standing of dogs in the city.

When Ms. Drago's committee held hearings, 600 people turned out to testify. The solution - the idea of these off-leash parks - polarized citizens into pro-dog and anti-dog factions. Environmental purists often lead the opposition to the off-leash areas, citing concerns for waterfowl and public safety.

"Some of the testimony was poignant," Ms. Clemons remembers. "We had people say, 'I don't have any children. I won't have any children. My dog is my child. I need a place to let her run.'

"We had what I call the fascists on both sides of the issue," Clemons says. "We had people who thought dogs should be able to run free anywhere in the city and we had people who thought there shouldn't be any dogs in Seattle, period."

In the end, they discovered the issue wasn't about dogs, it was about people.

Indeed, off-leash parks have fostered impromptu dog clubs where the socializing seems as important for the humans as it is for the canines. "You'll find all these people out there at 6 a.m. drinking their lattes together - and the only reason they've come to know each other is their dogs," Clemons says.

Transforming Regrade Park into a dog park was a grass-roots effort, spearheaded by Citizens for Off-Leash Areas, a group with its own website. Giving the scruffy park to the dogs for good isn't a sure thing, yet. A final decision will be made after an 18-month trial period.

The dogs, of course, are blissfully unaware of the politics that swirl around their new place to frolic and test social boundaries, leash free. During one of his first trips to Regrade Park, Dingo metamorphoses into a four-legged Lothario and tries to "romance" a small Pomeranian, who protests with a "no means no" kind of bark.

"Dingo!" shouts Lou-Ellen Peffer, the amorous mutt's owner. "Quit being a dog, come here!" Dingo glances over his shoulder, and then trots obediently to Ms. Peffer.

"Oh, you're such a go-o-od dog," she coos as he drops to his haunches to receive a treat. It disappears in a gulp.

"Before this park opened," Ms. Peffer says, "I had to drive 20 minutes, to Gold Gardens, to let Dingo off his leash. Now it's a three-block walk."

Nash, whose dog, Baker, is one of more than 100,000 canines said to live in this city of 563,000 humans, agrees. "There's nothing better than a bunch of people with dogs to turn things around."

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