BY SCOTT STIFFLER | Taking its lead from a letter generated late last year by the Waterfront, Parks, & Environment (WPE) committee of Manhattan Community Board 4 (CB4), the board’s full membership voted earlier this month to recommend immediate closure of the Penn South Dog Run—a recommendation the letter’s recipient, NYC Department of Parks & Recreation (Parks), is about to act upon.
“We plan to close the Penn South Playground Dog Run by the end of next week,” said Terese Flores, NYC Parks & Recreation Regional Manager. Flores—who attended the January 12 WPE meeting with her colleague, Steve Simon (Chief of Staff to the Manhattan Borough Commissioner at Parks)—said the decision was reached after giving “serious consideration to the board’s request, and we also had taken into account the similar requests that we had from members of the public.”
The short-lived, much-used Penn South facility was constructed by Parks in May of this year, when doggie exercise and play destinations in Madison Square and Chelsea Waterside parks closed for repair. But the long, narrow patch of Parks property on West 25th Street (btw. Eighth & Ninth Aves.) was contentious from the get-go, earning the ire of nearby residents who repeatedly attended CB4’s WPE and Full Board meetings to testify that the volume and frequency of barking has made life intolerable.
Many Dog Run supporters, who weighed in at those same meetings, maintain the noise complaints are overinflated, and detractors are handily outnumbered by those who want the Run upgraded from temporary to permanent. The one mile round-trip to recently reopened Chelsea Waterside Park, they added, burdens those with mobility challenges—a sizable contingent in Penn South, given the sprawling co-op’s classification as a NORC (Naturally Occurring Retirement Community).
Despite these and other angles of protestation, Flores told the January WPE gathering that the “fencing and gates that we installed will be removed, and a sign advising Dog Run users of the closure will go up very soon,” adding that the Office of NYC District 3 Council Member Erik Bottcher “will be reaching out to the Dog Run users to inform them that they should retrieve various items they had stored there.”
Bottcher has been supportive of the Penn South Run for reasons beyond the energy-expending opportunity it provides to the zoomies and fetch set. Speaking to CB4’s Full Board at their December 6, 2022 meeting, Bottcher said, “I love the Dog Run… It’s on my walk to work every day—and for years, it was a windswept, abandoned lot. Now when I walk by, I see… you know the dogs are cute, but you see neighbors talking to each other, meeting each other. They’re clearly neighbors who didn’t know each other before, and a real community has formed there.” (Click here for video of that quote, appearing 1 hour, 39 minutes, 34 seconds into the meeting.)
Still, acknowledged Bottcher, “I do know the barking has bothered some people.” He then reiterated an expectation that the situation would play out in the manner outlined by CB4 in their letter of May 17, 2022. Addressed to Bottcher and the Parks Commissioner, it anticipated “further discussions about the use of this space as Chelsea Waterside Park’s dog run reopens.” The reopening has since come to pass—and with it, discussions about the possibility of adding a permanent Dog Run to Park’s impending revamp of Penn South Playground. But with that project’s groundbreaking many months away, the notion of finding a nearby, fast-build site gained traction.
“We’re now considering the possibility of using three of the six handball courts that are in Chelsea Park [W. 27th St. btw. Ninth & 10th Aves.] for this purpose,” said Flores. The project’s cost would be around $15,000, she noted, with Parks providing the labor and essential materials such as fencing and a water connection. “We should be able to begin construction in late March,” she said, Whether the design and public vetting process will be complete by March is anybody’s guess–but should a groundbreaking ever happen, the time it takes to bring any Chelsea Park scenario to fruition would likely surpass the handful of days spent constructing the Penn South Dog Run—but it’s unlikely the project would be the stuff of weeks and months.
But what’s the use of building it if they won’t come? Pleasing Penn South pooch parents and other area stakeholders dominated the remainder of the WPE’s Jan. 12 discussion, as talk turned to what sort of letter (if any) the committee would submit for a vote when the full board convenes on February 1.
“I am hesitant to say ‘Green Light’ to anything other than a preliminary review,” said WPE member Lowell Kern of the Chelsea Park scenario, adding that talk of any new location is tantamount to “just throwing darts here” until more voices are added to the conversation. “If I’m going to vote ‘Yes’ on approving [conversion of] the handball courts, it has to be very conditional… that this is the preliminary stage. We’re not agreeing to a final Dog Run at this location. That’s pending further discussion with Parks and the community,” insisted Kern.
WPE committee member Carl Wilson made a motion “that the committee write a letter to Parks basically memorializing a lot of what Lowell just said, but also that we [Parks and CB4] move forward in examining the potential use of Chelsea Park.” In doing so, noted Wilson, Parks would return to the February WPE meeting with a detailed “plan we can all opine on”—“all” meaning the Penn South dog run people as well as residents of nearby Fulton (NYCHA) Houses and others currently using Chelsea Park.
WPE’s Christopher LeBron expressed support for the motion on the condition of adding “a friendly amendment that we also include Hudson Guild” — the venerable West 26th Street community center whose onetime proposal for partial handball-to-squash court conversion seems consigned to history. “We’re not currently considering putting squash courts there,” said Parks’ Steve Simon. Responding to WPE member Roberta Barnett’s inquiry about the rationale for taking some of handball courts away, Simon noted that although Parks has “not done a thorough analysis, it is our experience that the courts are underutilized… We agree that three of them should be preserved, but we don’t think there’s necessarily a demand for all six.”
That depends on who you ask, and what time of year and day of the week you’re talking about. Chelsea Community News paid a late afternoon visit to the courts in question on Monday, January 16. Taking a break from using the handball court’s long, tall wall to practice his tennis form (as many others do, he noted), John Lyndsay said it’s not uncommon for all six courts to be occupied—mostly by handball players—on weekend mornings in seasons other than winter.
Told of a scenario that would sacrifice half of Chelsea Park’s handball courts (on the side of the wall closest to Ninth Ave.), Lyndsay said his fallback destination would be DeWitt Clinton Park, which he described as “a good base model” for park design. “Everything is segmented,” he said, noting clear lines of demarcation for the basketball, handball, and pickleball courts as well as the Dog Run and playground.
If plans for a Dog Run at Chelsea Park come to pass, clear lines of demarcation won’t be a problem: Practical or aesthetic upgrades notwithstanding, the location in question is already surrounded by fencing tall enough to prevent the most vertically inclined Red Rover from jumping over. And while fencing keeps canines contained, the gated entrance presents a challenge.
“It’s possible we might ask the group to lock it up at night or possibly and open it up in the morning,” said Simon, referring to the volunteers Parks says are necessary. Said Flores, earlier in the meeting, “We need to have a well-organized volunteer group to help maintain the Run, and we will need a group like the one we had at Penn South in order to keep the peace and encourage good neighborly habits and a responsible use of the run as well as a way to communicate with the community about dog run issues.”
What else is expected of those volunteers has been specified by Parks, in their April 2022 Dog Run Policy document. Flores referenced it several times during the Jan. 12 WPE meeting. Since then, CB4 has received a copy—as has Chelsea Community News, from Parks, upon request. Its third and final page lists 15 tasks “required of volunteer-led dog run groups,” including (“but not limited to”) gathering a group of at least 10 volunteers “who will be responsible to maintain the dog run(s).” Enforcing all posted rules, cleaning “all hard surfaces daily,” and “communicating and reporting needs to appropriate Parks staff” are also among the requirements. For its part, Parks must “repair infrastructure such as lighting, plumbing, and drainage,” conduct “periodic inspections,” and “attend and participate in meetings related to the volunteer dog run group.” (The full three-page document can be found at the tail end of this article.)
Shelli Rosen, one of the most persistent voices in the effort to preserve the Penn South Run’s presence says that although CB4 and Parks took the easy way out by simply shuttering the run instead of trying options like reduced hours, she likes the Chelsea Park scenario.
“I feel it is very vindicating to the effort we put in,” said Rosen, referring to the pro-Penn South camp, noting, “I do not think the supporters of the Penn South Park will view the establishment of dog run at a Chelsea Park as a compromise or less appealing option. Yes there was a lot of support for [keeping the] Penn South Run, but I believe it will carry over to Chelsea Park.”
Asked how she felt about CB4 wanting to hear community input before committing to this location, Rosen said,“I believe it’s fair to ask the community to step up and let them [CB4 and Parks] know this location would be fully supported. It’s close enough to Penn South—and in terms of the layout and acoustics, it’s not surrounded by as many tall buildings, so it’s not likely to be as viewed as intrusive or controversial to residents.”
Rosen—who counts herself among those who answered Parks’ call for volunteers at the Penn South Run—said, “I am absolutely confident that people who supported the Penn South location will be equally motivated to organize on behalf of the Chelsea Park Run, if it happens. We’re still here, and we’re still passionate about this issue.”
Council Member Bottcher is of a similar resolve, telling Chelsea Community News, “While we are disappointed that this [Penn South] dog run is closing, we are committed to working with the amazing group of volunteers, the Parks Department, and the community to find an alternate location that meets the need for a dog run in this area.”
As for Commumity Board 4, WPE Co-Chair Leslie Boghosian Murphy, who moderated the committee’s Jan. 12 meeting, read the room and suggested that Parks proceed ahead with a preliminary review of the Chelsea Park option and be prepared to attend February’s WPE meeting with, as Carl Wilson put it, “a plan we can all opine on.” It was observed that such forward-thinking action is akin to doing an end run around the Full Board, as it supposes whatever lettter WPE puts forth will be voted on favorably. Mindful of Flores’ earlier statement that Parks could begin the handball courts-to-Dog-Run conversion as early as late March, all involved agreed that time was of the essence, especially given the fact that the Penn South Dog Run’s go-to days are over as of this Friday, January 20.
Besides, noted Boghosian Murphy, “We kind of know what’s going to happen down the line” at the February 1 Full Board meeting–meaning that by and large, letters that come out of committee for a Full Board vote have been well-vetted and are destined for Full Board approval, pending minor changes at best. Thusly, Parks should confidently forge ahead with the Chelsea Park presentation they’ll give to WPE’s February gathering. “Unless,” noted a wry Boghosian Murphy,” they throw us some kind of crazy curveball that the Full Board is going to vote it down, not to even pursue this [Chelsea Park] option.” Picking up that ball and running with it, Parks’ Simon declared, “I’m going to assume the letter is going to get approved [by the Full Board] and I’m going to work on that assumption.”
Wed., Feb. 1, 6:30pm via Zoom, the next CB4 Full Board Meeting
To register for online attendance, click here.
Thurs., Feb. 9, 6:30pm via Zoom: The Waterfront, Parks & Environment Committee (WPE)
To register for the online meeting, click here. A presentation by the NYC Department of Parks & Recreation is informed by their appearance at the Jan. 12 WPE meeting–and how, on Feb. 1, the Full Board voted on the letter that came out of WPE’s January meeting.
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