[Editor's note: This article was updated on November 15 to reflect new information that the south dog run will need to be relocated in the near future, earlier than originally reported.]
In the decade since Roosevelt Island’s housing boom ushered in dog-friendly policies, the Island’s dog population has swelled.
Today, signs of the maturing dog community are everywhere, from an annual Halloween dog costume contest to regular visits by mobile vet and grooming services – everywhere, that is, except at the two barebone dog runs that serve as the only off-leash spots where Island dogs can romp.
Citing a lack of fresh water, sufficient shade, safe surfacing, and adequate space for play, many dog owners say they are frustrated by the no-frills conditions at the Island’s two dog runs. And while a new Southtown dog park has been promised in 2021, owners say some vital changes can’t wait that long.
There are currently two enclosed spaces on the Island where dogs may play off-leash: the north run, located across from Coler Hospital’s loading dock; and the south run, which sits between Firefighters Field and 480 Main Street in Southtown. Both runs feature a 2,100 square-foot space for large dogs and a separate 670 square-foot space for small dogs – and not much else.
Barbara Roth, who lives at 415 Main Street with one-year-old French bulldog, Della, is particularly concerned by the south run’s surface of rocky dirt, which she considers unsafe for dogs. “It’s part tarmac, it’s part rock. There are sharp stones inside and boulders that are half embedded.” She’d also like to see a cold-water line with a shutoff valve run to the south run from 480 Main Street. Currently, neither run has a running-water source. “They could shut it off for the winter so it wouldn’t freeze,” says Roth. “But from May to October, we could fill dog bowls with water and hose down whatever messes are there. Because right now it’s disgusting.”
Lack of shade in the dog runs is the number one concern for Agi Miko, the owner of Roosevelt Island’s largest dog walking service, Agi’s Dogs. She says her team avoids the runs entirely between May and September. “Without shade, it’s too hot for the dogs in the runs during summer,” stressed Miko. “Shade, I cannot bring myself. Water, I can.”
On a hot day, dogs huddle under the sole source of shade at the south dog run. Photo by Agi Miko
Miko says she’s counted up to 13 dogs huddled under the south run’s picnic table at once, desperate for relief from the heat. She’d love to see RIOC erect a canopy outside the run’s southern fence. “It wouldn’t need to be fancy,” she argues. “Just some poles that hold up a wooden overhang extending a few feet into the run. It would also protect dogs and their owners from wind in the winter and rain all year-round.”
New Run in 2021
According to the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation (RIOC) and real estate developer Hudson Related, many of these complaints will be addressed once the final two Southtown buildings are finished, which is scheduled for 2021. Hudson Related plans to construct a state-of-the-art dog run where the south run now stands.
David Kramer, president of The Hudson Companies, says the new dog run will be a major fixture of Commons East, a new public plaza Hudson Related will develop for the space between the final two Southtown buildings, towers eight and nine.
“When we do the Commons East, it will be in coordination with the ninth building. It will feature a plaza space, public benches and walkways – like an extension of the Riverwalk Commons between 425 and 455 Main Street,” said Kramer.
In the meantime, Hudson and RIOC will need to find a new temporary location for the Southtown dog run, as its current spot places it too close to the construction of building eight, which is scheduled to begin January 2018.
"According to our contractor, Monadnock Construction, they’ll need to relocate the dog run after all since they’re concerned it’s too close to the construction of building 8 and would require building overhead protection above the dog run," wrote Kramer in an email. "Their suggestion would be to move it directly to the south."
No location for the temporary run has been selected yet, though RIOC has scouted a half-dozen possibilities with members of the dog community, including the strip of land behind Firefighters Field, near the new ferry dock; the northeast corner patch of the newly landscaped promenade around Cornell Tech; some undeveloped promenade plots underneath the Queensboro Bridge; several open tracts within Blackwell Park; and others.
Whichever temporary location is chosen, Miko believes it should remain as close as possible to Southtown. “When it’s bad weather or cold out, people who live in Southtown won’t take their dogs to the run if it’s too far away. Same thing when they’re walking their dogs in the morning before work.”
Ana Palm, an Island House resident with a one-year-old beagle/hound mix named Gordy, just hopes the run doesn’t move any farther south. “WIRE building residents have to walk very far to reach the north run,” she says. “The south run is closer for us.” She’d prefer to see the south run relocated to Blackwell Park. “The dog run inside Hunter’s Point South Park [Long Island City], where I take Gordy now, is right next to a playground and a picnic area, and I’ve never seen any problems there,” said Palm.
Mary Cunneen, RIOC’s new Parks and Recreation Director, who was hired last April, has been working with the Island’s dog community to address some longstanding complaints. In July, visitors to the runs were delighted to discover park benches had been installed in both runs. “They’ve been really helpful,” said Chris Gassman, a Manhattan Park resident with a two-year-old retriever named Boomer.
Cunneen also oversaw the recent installation of dispensers with poop bags and waste receptacles in both runs, as well as elsewhere on the Island. And she’s been collaborating with the dog community on a set of official rules for the dog runs. When several Islanders balked at her idea to have the runs close at 10:00 p.m., for example, she dropped the provision.
“Many Island dog owners, including myself, work long hours and often can’t take their dogs out until 10 or 11 o’clock at night,” explained Manhattan Park tenant Alexandra Fallone, owner of five-year-old hound Joey. “The existing runs are isolated, especially the north one, so noise shouldn’t be a concern.” Cunneen says signage for the new rules will be posted at both dog runs before the end of the year.
Also, thanks to the purchase of new, more nimble mowing equipment, Cunneen has ensured that RIOC’s grounds people now regularly mow the grass inside both runs’ small-dog areas. Over the summer it had grown taller than many small breeds, creating a tick hazard for them.
Dog owners have applauded the improvements, but they say many of their larger concerns have yet to be addressed.
For example, owners say the current fencing around the dog runs is problematic. Both runs’ entrance gates are positioned in corners, an aspect that makes them potentially dangerous to use when the run is crowded, as dogs already inside the run can trap newcomers, increasing the probability of fights. The north run’s large-dog gate is also the only one without a double-gate system, putting the dogs at risk for escaping – perilously close to speeding cars.
The north run’s gate has a large gap between the fence and gate hinge, that a medium-sized dog could potentially squeeze through.
But while Cunneen had originally agreed to implement the changes by the end of the year, RIOC has since backtracked, saying the expense is too high.
“This involves a costly expenditure, and RIOC has not undertaken it yet, as the south dog run will ultimately be moved and rebuilt when building nine is constructed,” says RIOC Vice President and General Council Jacqueline Flug. “As for the north dog run, this alteration cannot be done by RIOC’s maintenance staff, but requires an outside vendor which RIOC will seek to procure.” The north run may see improved gates next year.
As for the existing south dog run, Flug has made clear RIOC plans to spend no money on improvements deemed “costly.” Cunneen backs up this assessment, saying that, for now, RIOC’s emphasis will be on upgrades to the north run.
Flug says that shade and new surface material will be part of Hudson Related’s future run once Southtown construction in finished. The organization has not yet taken a position on whether running water and shade will be part of the temporarily relocated south run, which will stand for two full years.
For comparison, it’s worth pointing out that RIOC’s Board voted in October to approve a three-year, $225,000 deal to adorn a portion of Main Street with lights and decorations for the holiday season. And analysis of the financial reporting section of the public corporation’s website reveals over $150 million of accumulated budget surpluses.
As for the future dog run, one element that the entire dog community appears unified on is the need for the next dog park to be much larger than what the Island has now.
“There is no area on the Island where dogs can be legally off-leash and get the exercise they need to live a happy and healthy life,” says Fallone. “For many people, the dog parks on the Island are the only place their large dogs can run, considering restrictions on the subways and the Tram.”
“A tired dog is a good neighbor,” agrees Roth. “One that doesn’t have enough exercise is a problem.”
Miko also points out that a larger run would give more dogs the opportunity to socialize together, “And, that’s good for the whole Island, because then we’ll have well-socialized dogs being walked on the promenade and Main Street, with fewer fights and disturbances. That’s something that benefits us all – people, too.”
To help shape the direction of the Island’s canine amenities:
Join the Community: For dog owners who wish to be involved in shaping Hudson Related’s future dog run, the easiest way is to join the Island’s dog group on the popular mobile chat app Whatsapp (www.bit.ly/islanddogparks). Kramer has vowed to seek the group’s input, such as what type of surfacing should be used, when the project moves into the planning stages.
Report Problems: To report broken equipment in the existing runs, such as the recently repaired gate in the south run, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or use the Fix It link on the RIOC website. Both are checked daily, says Cunneen.
Offer Suggestions: Those with ideas for RIOC’s plans to temporarily relocate the south dog run, or who have concerns about the organization’s policies may wish to email Cunneen directly at email@example.com. Considering RIOC’s intention of ignoring the south run, dog owners may prefer to advocate that it be moved now, thereby extending the temporary run’s life cycle to three full years.
Show Up: RIOC’s 2019-2020 budget will be drafted in June, with lobbying for specific projects expected to kick off after the first of the year. Dog owners can begin attending RIOC board meetings, which are listed at rioc.ny.gov/meeting.htm. You can sign up ahead of time to speak at these same meetings at rioc.ny.gov/speakup.htm