Noe Valley Voice September 2003

Upper Douglass Goes to the Dogs

By Olivia Boler

It's official: the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department has approved the upper tier of Douglass Park, off 27th Street, as a dog play area (DPA). That means you and your four-legged friend can frolic untethered in the park, provided your pup plays nice--no excessive barking or hole-digging allowed.

While dogs have been romping off-leash at Upper Douglass for some time, their playing in the open field did not yet have city sanction. But on July 17, the Recreation and Park Commission voted unanimously to make what had been a de facto off-leash park a legitimate one.

The campaign for the dog park was launched back in January by 27th Street resident Jim Collins, owner of a black German shepherd named Darth. Following the guidelines set out in a new dog policy adopted by Rec and Park in May 2002, Collins posted an online petition and gathered nearly 200 signatures in support of his plan. The proposal asked the city to designate what most Noe Valleyans call Upper Douglass Park a safe haven for dogs to roam free. It also defined Upper Douglass as a "shared-use" park. Shared-use means anybody can use the park--to play softball, have a picnic, practice tai chi, or let their dog play with other dogs off-leash.

Over the winter and spring, Collins and his allies attended numerous meetings of Rec and Park's Dog Advisory Committee. When the lobbying efforts finally paid off this summer, Collins felt as if a weight had been lifted from his shoulders. "It was a real feeling of satisfaction, because we worked so long and so hard to get this accomplished."

"Thank You's" Paved the Way

Though friends warned Collins that he'd meet with a lot of resistance and red tape at City Hall, he describes his experience as heartening.

"I told [my friends], why can't we do this by the book? These are just people trying to do their jobs," says Collins. "I went into it with a non-adversarial outlook. I said 'thank you' a lot. I'm amazed how much saying 'thank you' can get you."

Located at the corner of Douglass and 27th streets, Upper Douglass Park sits one steep block up from lower Douglass Park (also known as Douglass Playground), a fenced-in park and children's play area off 26th Street. Dogs are not permitted in this lower park. Soft grass, picnic tables, swing sets, and public restrooms make Douglass Playground a popular spot for kids' birthday parties and family gatherings.

A Little Rough Around the Edges

In contrast, Upper Douglass is a bit raw. The baseball diamond is often muddy in spots, and there are no bathrooms or tables. Cliffs and eucalyptus trees surround the park to the north, south, and west. For years, a trail above the cliffs had been a designated off-leash dog run, though human owners were often scared off by signs warning against the dangers of falling. But the park's main asset, from a canine's perspective, is that it has a big open field, covered with thick green grass.

According to Rec and Park spokesperson Becky Ballinger, now that Upper Douglass is a dog play area, some garbage cans may be added, but the basic field maintenance will not change. Rec and Park will, however, post signs reminding people to clean up after their dogs and keep them from digging up the turf.

Along with Alamo Square and Crocker Amazon Park, Upper Douglass Park is one of the first dog play areas to be allowed under the city's new dog policy, she notes. Rec and Park is also looking into designating off-leash trails in McLaren Park, Glen Canyon Park, and Stern Grove. Ballinger says that McLaren's size--over 300 acres--would attract dog owners on the weekends, who would make use of smaller, neighborhood parks like Upper Douglass on the weekdays.

A Good Place for Exercise

Noe Valley resident David Shaber has been coming to Upper Douglass Park with his mixed hound dog Cassie for six years. Like many dog owners who frequent the park, he is delighted about its new official status as a dog play area.

"So many people have dogs and no place to exercise them," Shaber says. "You need an open space that's flat like Upper Douglass for the elderly and disabled."

He worries, though, that when word gets out, the park will become overrun with users.

Ballinger echoes this concern, saying there is limited open space in San Francisco for both dogs and people, and that District 8 has the highest dog population in the city.

"If there's only one place for dogs to go in a neighborhood, it will become heavily used and become a potential maintenance problem because of the distress to the area," she says.

But other parks either don't allow dogs off-leash or have small, cramped dog runs. Linda Hayes, who lives near Church Street, used to take her Newfoundland pup to Christopher Park in Diamond Heights, but she stopped after a patrolwoman admonished her to put her dog on a leash. Now they go to Upper Douglass instead.

Professional dog walker Deborah Deegan also likes the 27th Street park. "Upper Douglass is great because the dogs have the space to socialize and play."

In the past, she escorted some of her clients' pets to the fenced-in dog run at Upper Noe Recreation Center on 30th Street. "But it's too narrow and enclosed," she says.

Dogs Better-Behaved Than People

Deegan thinks things at Upper Douglass have improved since the park "went to the dogs." She recalls seeing young men barbecuing on their hibachis in the park and threatening to break the necks of some people's pets. Now she sees more families with dogs and children.

Collins echoes her sentiments. He has lived a half-block from Upper Douglass since 1986, and recalls past troubles with homeless encampments and drug and alcohol use in the park. Some mornings, he would find used needles and burned-out campfires. "Late at night, you'd hear yelling and screaming, although the park is technically closed from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.," Collins says. "You'd see graffiti--recognizable gang tags--on the maintenance building. Since the park became popular with dog owners, that kind of thing has stopped."

DPAs Not Without Controversy

Not everyone, however, is happy about the park's new designation. Andrea O'Leary, who lives "on a hillside above Noe Valley," has been vocal in her opposition to making Upper Douglass an off-leash park. She had hoped the park would be kept primarily as a sports field, and thinks Rec and Park used the park's poor drainage as an excuse not to do that.

"I'm not saying don't give the dogs dog runs," she says. "Just don't give them the heart and soul of the property. It's pathetic that we put children behind fences and let dogs run free."

O'Leary also thinks calling the park "shared-use" is ridiculous. "The only people who are going to share the park are the dog owners," she says.

Collins disputes this claim. "Anyone can use the park. Anyone is welcome. Dog owners will prove to people that they are good neighbors, and that dogs are good neighbors too."

Collins says his next plan is to set up a fund through Friends of Recreation & Parks that will raise money to buy benches and a drinking fountain for Upper Douglass Park. For more information, e-mail h

Doggie Do's and Don'ts

The San Francisco Dog Owners Group (SFDOG) offers these tips for pet owners who wish to bring their dogs to the park.

* Carry a leash.

* Pick up and dispose of dog waste.

* Do not leave dogs unattended.

* Leash aggressive dogs.

* Control excessive noise.

* Prevent digging and destructive behavior.

* Always carry a bag, a spare, and one to share!