NEW ORLEANS - Every evening, Cabrini Park in the French Quarter was once filled with dogs and their owners. Now, the grass is overgrown, the gates are locked, and a sign says 'temporarily closed as the city conducts precautionary soil remediation and capital improvement.'
The space, which neighbors had used for decades as an unofficial dog park, will reopen as a playground and sports field.
'I think the city doesn't even know the nature of this community,' said Joan Trenor, a French Quarter dog owner who has used the park for the last 25 years.
Neighbors like Trenor say there's a pressing need for a dog park in the French Quarter.
'Everybody has a dog that lives around here and barely anyone has a kid,' said Trenor. 'How do you keep a community together except by uniting the neighbors?'
The city recently opened two public dog runs, the Wisner Dog Run Uptown and Crescent Park Dog Run in Bywater. The closest dog park to the French Quarter is the Crescent Park Dog Run.
But a number of dog owners say they are frustrated with the design, since waste bags, a trash can and a drinking fountain are outside the fenced area. They also say the space is too small, the park's benches are not shaded and they fear small trees that dot the park impede dog's ability to run freely.
'It's not really set up by someone who owns dogs, it seems like,' said Leah Knapp, a Bywater dog owner at the dog run Monday. 'We just need a bigger space, a better space to bring out dogs.'
The city has closed several other unofficial dog parks in order to reopen them as playgrounds since last year, including Markey Park in the Bywater and the field behind the Lyons Center on Tchoupitoulas and Louisiana.
In the French Quarter, neighbors have collected about 700 signatures, asking the city to keep at least part of Cabrini Park as an off-leash dog area. They even had a landscaper draw up a proposal to divide the space to serve as a playground and dog park.
But the city is forging ahead with other plans.
A city spokeswoman says the city shares ownership of Cabrini Park with the nearby KIPP McDonogh 15 school. In 2012, the two entered into a cooperative agreement to enhance the school's sports and physical education program by renovating Cabrini Park's sport field and playground area.
But neighbors point out that the school is scheduled to relocate to New Orleans East in two years.
Wayne Wilkinson runs the loosely-formed group Friends of Cabrini Park, which supports the park's use as an off-leash dog area. He also served on two citizens advisory committees on the issue of dog parks.
'What they're doing, they're basically saying they don't really care. 'It's not really important to us what the neighbors want,'' said Wilkinson.
The city says the site was formerly occupied by McDonogh school and was razed in 1939 to make Cabrini Park.
'McDonogh 15 School has had a continuous arrangement to use the site for its physical education and sports programs,' said city spokeswoman Garnesha Crawford.
'In 2012, the City completed a citywide dog park study to assess potential locations for the installation of dog parks and dog runs in each Council District. Cabrini Park was not selected as being designated an official dog park.
'Dogs are allowed in all public parks as long as they are on leash and their waste is picked up. The City is continuing to engage dog owners to educate them on the lawful use of parks and public spaces. NORD personnel and NOPD officers are warning pet owners that they are breaking the law when their dog is off leash in public parks and issuing citations when they are non compliant.'
The city says it's spending $65,000 for fence repairs and a safety surface for the playground, and KIPP is paying for other park amenities. KIPP also completed risk reduction abatement for levels of lead found in the soil.
Cabrini Park is set to re-open in October.