Noe Valley Voice April 1998

Group Wants to Get Tails Wagging at Noe Courts

By Cameron Alston

Few locals can forget that Noe Courts, the small park at 24th and Douglass streets, became ground zero in a turbulent turf battle last summer. Those who wished to see a total ban on dogs -- mostly parents with young children -- and those who wanted to let their pets roam free in the park were constantly at one another's throats, causing the city's Recreation and Park Department to clamp down on the leash law. Since July, dogs off-leash have not been allowed in the park.

Now as summer approaches, a group calling itself the Noe Courts Coalition -- formed last year to protest the dog ban -- is sniffing out a compromise. But to try to avoid a scuffle, the group invited all sides to a neighborhood meeting March 10 at the Noe Valley Ministry.

About 50 people attended the event. Among them were representatives from the Board of Supervisors and the Recreation and Park Department.

The meeting was chaired by coalition member and longtime Noe Valley resident Bruce Kapsack. He said the main reason he and others organized the meeting was to lobby the city for funding to make improvements to the park. "If Noe Courts could get $250,000 in matching funds," he said, "we could build new bathrooms, a new play area for the kids, and install water fountains. That kind of money would really improve the park."

Kapsack stressed that in order to convince the city that Noe Courts deserved the money, the community would need to present a unified front. He beseeched his neighbors to work together. "If one group has one plan and another group goes behind their backs and presents a conflicting plan, they will end up giving the money away to another park and we will all lose out."

While there were moments when tempers flared at the meeting, most of the participants professed a desire to work things out. There was near consensus on issues such as children's safety in the play area and improvement of rundown facilities.

At first, the group tiptoed around the dog issue. But it soon became clear that dogs were on everyone's mind.

One man complained that last spring so many dogs were congregating in the park, "the park literally smelled like urine. On a warm day all that smell gets to be terrible." Another woman said her children felt threatened by the big dogs and that "every time we tried to use the park to play games on the grass like baseball, there were dogs running everywhere and we just had to leave."

The coalition members admitted that dog overpopulation used to be a problem, but that was before the leash law was tightened. Since midsummer, the number of dogs visiting Noe Courts has dropped dramatically, they pointed out.

While this news had some parents cheering, some homeowners who live across from the park said they were now worried about the decline in foot traffic.

"There is no question that problems with graffiti and broken beer bottles have increased since the dog walkers stopped coming here," said Ray Larroca, a 10-year resident of Douglass Street. "Now the park is empty at night, and teenagers come in and trash the place," he said.

Larroca, like many others at the meeting, supported the idea of letting dogs off-leash before 9 a.m. and after 6 p.m. "There are rarely any children in the park that early in the morning, and they almost never come at night. I just don't see why there should be a problem," Larroca said.

Still, by the end of the meeting, there was no handshake on whether to allow unleashed dogs back in the park at certain times.

Despite the apparent stalemate, the Noe Courts Coalition says it will proceed with plans for physical improvements to the park. Noe Valley resident Steve Kolm, an architect who has designed some of the park's amenities in the past, is working on new designs that would expand and improve the children's play area and create a natural barrier between the toddlers' playground and the rest of the park.

The next step for the group is drafting proposals to present to the community. Kapsack hopes to have three or four plans ready to introduce for neighborhood approval in a month or so. After more meetings, the group's final choice will be presented to the Board of Supervisors. Then the lobbying and fundraising will begin.

Even though there was no resolution on the dog issue, Kapsack said he felt the March meeting was a success. "We created an avenue for dialogue among the divergent groups, wherever that may lead. It showed that there is a very strong interest in seeing that the situation does not pick up where it left off last summer."