Four years ago, when Palo Alto resident Howard Hoffman went to City Hall to speak in favor of building a new dog park, a member of the Parks and Recreation Commission gave him a suggestion: Get organized.
Hoffman, a proud owner of two chocolate labradoodles, did just that. In May 2013, he founded a grassroots group called Palo Alto Dog Owners, which today has about 400 members. They attend occasional meetings, exchange emails and lobby the City Council to build more play spaces for canines.
From Hoffman's perspective, the city's dog facilities fail miserably both in quantity and quality. All three of the city's dog parks are in south Palo Alto and only the 0.5-acre one at Mitchell Park is larger than the industry standard of 0.25 acres. The other two, at Hoover and Greer parks, are 0.14 and 0.12 acres, respectively.
"You can say there are three parks, but the one at Greer Park is a joke," Hoffman told the Weekly. "No one goes there. ... It's just a narrow run -- there's no way dogs can play and exercise there. It's not much better than my backyard."
Hoffman's view that the city is neglecting its dog owners has plenty of adherents. In 2013, City Council members tried to include a dog park in the overhaul of El Camino Park, near the Menlo Park border, only to be rebuffed because of the site's proximity to San Francisquito Creek (under state law, dogs and the creek-inhabiting steelhead trout don't make for a healthy mix).
Since then, the city's leading champion of the cause has been the Parks and Recreation Commission, which over the past two years briefly considered a shared-use dog park (which didn't fly; most people apparently don't want to share their fields with Fido) and evaluated other sites for new dog runs.
Hoffman acknowledged that he would have liked a park to have been built by now.
"But things don't happen quickly in Palo Alto," said Hoffman, an observation that should hit home with proponents of citywide broadband networks, fancy bike bridges and a new public-safety building.
Not surprisingly, dog parks have emerged as a key policy of the city's new Parks, Trails, Natural Space and Recreation Facilities Master Plan. The policy specifies that parks for canines will not be placed in open-space preserves and identifies a list of potential locations: Bowden Park, Eleanor Pardee Park, Heritage Park, Juana Briones Park, Kingsley Island Park, Peers Park, Robles Park and Werry Park. (View a map of potential and current dog parks here. The policy also calls for improvements and expansions at the three existing dog parks. Last August, as the parks commission prepared to unanimously support a policy to build more dog parks, Commissioner Ed Lauing -- who is now serving on the Planning and Transportation Commission -- voiced a prevailing sentiment when he said that there is now "a sense of urgency" on the topic.
Former Commissioner Jennifer Hetterly agreed and noted that the city has been talking about dog parks for at least a decade but hasn't made progress.
When it comes to the City Council, dog parks straddle the ideological divide. Karen Holman, a Havanese dog owner and the council's residentialist-in-chief, has long championed new amenities for canines. And Cory Wolbach, the council's most aggressive housing advocate, said last September that he fully supports going forward with new dog spaces.
Residents also tend to favor improved amenities for dogs and their owners, even if there isn't a strong consensus on a specific solution. A recent community survey showed 59 percent of respondents supporting making improvement to dog areas, while 43 percent said it would be inappropriate not to add dog parks.
Opinions vary when it comes to solutions, though. Dog owners who answered the survey naturally showed a much higher preference for additional dedicated off-leash dog areas, with 66 percent saying these facilities are "appropriate or very appropriate." For those without dogs, the number was only 30 percent, the survey found.
Neither group showed too much enthusiasm for having off-leash dogs share spaces with humans at play.
Since last fall, more proposals have come and gone. A dog run at Bowden Park along Alma Street now seems unlikely because a public art piece would have to be relocated. And two separate proposals for Pardee Park in the Crescent Park neighborhood were shelved at the behest of tree advocates (apparently dog pee and oaks also don't mix) and neighbors who protested having a dog run next to their fences.
There will no doubt be more setbacks as the city moves ahead in implementing its ambitious new dog-recreation policy. But given the new political support, Hoffman is far from disheartened.
"We have now a situation where even the new commissioners understand that dog parks are a priority; we have a planning document that says it's one of the biggest needs in Parks and Recreation; and we have staff really committed to doing something," he said.