Canine oasis in the city

Rachel Johnson plays fetch with her dogs, Evie and Riscuit, and others at the dog park along the Schuylkill.
Rachel Johnson plays fetch with her dogs, Evie and Riscuit, and others at the dog park along the Schuylkill. (RYAN S. GREENBERG / Staff Photographer)

Schuylkill River Park's dog run a treat for pets and their people.

Posted: October 15, 2012

Sadie Miller was ready for action.

She was home most of the day Thursday, patiently waiting for Peter, the love of her life. An architect in Center City, he had been at work. When he finally came for her, Sadie could hardly contain herself. They went out for a walk, headed for Schuylkill River Park, and then - be still my heart.

Paradise.

A block-long expanse of synthetic grass, landscaped with trees and bushes along the river's edge. Within the 5-foot-high unleapable black iron fence, about 30 of her friends were already partying in the big-dog section. Kima, the high-strung, athletic Labrador/Boston terrier mix. Lola, the totally smokin' boxer. Educated poodles. Tennis-ball-OCD golden retrievers. The local slutt-mutt who, as usual, was sprawled on her back allowing a group sniff. And one valiant, three-legged greyhound. Peter unsnapped Sadie's leash, and she bolted, tearing across the turf to greet a newcomer, Stanley the Bernese mountain dog, who, despite his wobble-butt gait, was a heartthrob.

"This is by far the nicest dog park in the city of Philadelphia," said Mark Focht, first deputy commissioner of the Philadelphia Parks and Recreation Department. It is not yet complete, said Focht (pronounced "Folk"), but the city decided to open it a few weeks ago to allow the neighbors and their dogs to enjoy it while final improvements are made.

"It's a huge victory," said Sarah Clark Stuart, a key member of the Schuylkill River Park Alliance who worked for more than eight years on the project. "This is a case where all parts of the community who got involved and worked really hard ended up with what they were seeking."

Although some of the regular dog walkers and dog owners have complaints and concerns, the overall consensus is that Schuylkill River Dog Park rocks.

"The dogs really love it," said Peter Miller as Sadie, his 31/2-year-old chocolate Lab, lurched into him.

For more than a decade, he had brought Sadie's predecessors to the old dog park in this area. Neighbors from Fitler and Logan Square had claimed the neglected area as far back as the 1970s, to walk their dogs.

In the 1990s, area residents, city officials, and CSX, the railroad that owns the strip of land where the tracks run parallel to the river, entered a long and bitter fight over access to Schuylkill River Park along the water's edge. The main sticking point was that CSX wanted to shut down the two primary paths where the public crossed the tracks, while the city and residents wanted a way to conveniently reach the park.

Heated public meetings were held. Suits were filed. Lawyers were hired. Finally, an agreement was reached. CSX agreed to compromise. Stuart and her late husband, Robert, helped apply for federal funds for the project. The city invited public input on the design.

For a few months, while construction of a pedestrian bridge over the CSX railroad tracks was under way, the dog park was moved to a tract nearby.

In the old park, the ground was covered by gravel.

When people walked their dogs after work, dust might get all over them. The interim dog park was covered in wood chips. That, too, posed a problem.

"The chips were dirty and muddy," said Adam Christmann, 26, owner of Kima and, in his day job, a drug-abuse and -addiction researcher. "I would have to hose her off every time. And when it rained, we wouldn't want to take her at all."

After researching dog parks in other cities and inviting public comment, Focht said, the city decided to install a synthetic, dog-friendly grass. The green, short-bladed turf is porous, tough, and cleans naturally in the rain, he said. And for times when additional help is needed, the city has supplied two long hoses and plentiful water.

Professional dog walker Lindsay Duggan doesn't trust the fake grass because she's heard it harbors bacteria and can give dogs eye infections. "Some of my clients won't walk on it, either," Duggan said. "They're afraid of it."

Her concerns about infections are unfounded, Focht said, citing multiple cities that have been using the turf for years with no problem. And if some dogs don't like it? "There are plenty of other dog parks in the city," he shrugged.

"I'm very proud of this project," said Focht, noting that the entire $5.6 million installation came in on time and $200,000 under budget. Giving a tour last week of the dog park's features, he pointed out fences recently adjusted so that Jack Russell terriers can't burrow under, the new pedestrian bridge, and the regraded "bowl" - a grassy field where people can read and relax.

"Excuse me," a woman interrupted, noticing Focht's clipboard and pin-striped suit. "Are you official park people?" She had just left the small-dog section of the park with a pug on a leash. "I don't want to complain," she said, "but you have to go through two fences to get to the trash." She told Focht that there were no bins inside the dog run and the fences were too high for her to toss her filled plastic bags over the top.

"I'm sorry," Focht said, explaining that the garbage bins are situated so that the city staff can empty them easily every day without getting attacked by dogs and that the fences, originally only 4 feet high, were raised at the request of residents who worried that their dogs would be able to launch over them.

"OK," the woman said, offering another small protest, then added, "It's a beautiful park otherwise." As she led her dog away, she passed the trash bins necklaced by half a dozen bags on the ground, where dog owners, apparently trying for three-point shots, had flung the bags over the fence and missed.

Given that dog parks are highly social gathering spots for both pets and humans, the scent of dissent is picked up quickly.

"I heard some people complaining, and I just want to say that I think this park is wonderful," said Crystal Swenson, owner of Lola the boxer, and a history professor at Cabrini College.

"It's pretty impressive," said Swenson. "The aesthetic is just beautiful. It's designed well. I think it's a welcoming place for dogs and a respite from the city." Lola, apparently in assent, wagged her stubby tail and drooled.


Contact Melissa Dribben

at 215-854-2590 or mdribben@phillynews.com.

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