FREE SPEECH ZONE | Off-leash area at MLK Park?

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It came as no surprise to those of us in the core team of Kingfield Dogpark Task Force (a racially diverse group from at least three neighborhoods) that there might be some tension across the boundary of 35W and the neighborhoods on either side of it. My wife and I take some good-natured ribbing about “those people” from across the freeway (we live in Bryant, east of Kingfield) who would start coming to use the park in greater numbers. The reference is to a warning made by a certain park staff member – to remain nameless since I can’t claim to have witnessed it directly – who foretold of such negative consequences to come if this amenity were built at MLK Park.

The task force (formally adopted by the Kingfield Neighborhood Association in April for the purpose of pursuing the development of this neighborhood improvement project) had, by that point, already done its due diligence and explored as many options as possible in SW Minneapolis. Lyndale Farmstead and an area by the Lake Harriet Rose Garden were eliminated due to past opposition from neighbors, poor drainage, and relative distance from many of us, being that they lie at the fringes of residential areas, and to be frank, in wealthier areas. Lack of attractive options elsewhere led our group to MLK Park, where we could meet criteria of:

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  1. Requesting generally underused space
  2. With few topographical challenges such as drainage and potential erosion
  3. In the 6th Park District and centrally located to residential areas currently underserved in terms of dog areas – more specifically convenient to the neighborhoods represented by the citizens involved in the proposal process
  4. Maximizing the walkability for the majority of residents likely to be interested in the off-leash area, as determined by data provided by Animal Control
  5. With the least possible negative impact on neighbors or other users of nearby spaces

As a bonus, we recognized that the MLK Park site also offered opportunities to address some crime issues by proposing development that would deter problems and increase safety, in addition to the majorly appealing prospect of serving a very diverse population. Quickly, it became a our goal to bring these residents together in an environment often recognized for the unique community-building that happens when people share interests, memories, and companionship with perfect strangers across any type of divisive line you can conjure.

We expected our most vocal opposition to come from immediate neighbors of the park, and spent much time and effort researching and planning ways to make the area the most appealing installment possible. We began with one site sandwiched between the ball fields and tennis bubbles on one side and the 35W sound wall on the other. Park planning staff, however, raised concerns over logistical issues and suggested the NW corner of the park, near the statue – since identified as a memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The statue has no plaque or other indication of purpose, and park staff, seemingly unaware of its significance, suggested the possibility of moving it to accommodate a canine area. We saw no need to incur further costs, and felt it could remain in place, looking forward to a rapid process bringing this new resource to residents from so many surrounding neighborhoods.

Since then, ironically, the most vocal opposition has been raised on the grounds that our proposal is disrespectful to MLK’s legacy. I’ve frequently heard vociferous arguments that it would mean dogs “pooping all over sacred ground”, despite our assurances that we don’t wish it to be a smelly crap-filled place either. Notably, conversations with our opposition have also revealed misunderstandings about the size of the area requested, the existence of fencing surrounding the dog area, the responsibilities of dog owners, and the specific sites under consideration. Concerns raised also include such false arguments as the notion that we are “taking away from the children” and the idea that there will suddenly be significantly more canine activity in the park. Families and children use and enjoy dog parks too, and local dogs already visit the park, many illegally off-leash. It is true, though, that perhaps even more neighbors would come out to the local park if they felt welcomed with their pets.

The culmination at the meeting this past Thursday was disheartening for many reasons. Not the least of which was seeing the divisive hurt feelings that became more apparent that evening. Both sides were generally respectful, but seemingly unable to give ground in either direction. Opponents, mostly elderly and many from far corners of Minneapolis, promised to fight the insulting proposal, and residents from Kingfield, Bryant, Tangletown, Regina, Central, Powderhorn, and Lyndale expressed how much it would mean to have a small dog park within walking distance of home where they could, indeed, meet more neighbors and build better relationships with them. The most astounding moment, for me, was hearing Al Flowers vocally berate a black member of our team, calling him the one “sucker” in our crowd. That was possibly the least deserved comment – certainly the most directly malicious one – I heard made that night, from either side of the debate.

We’re still moving forward and determining our next steps, but there is demand for an off-leash park in our area, and we challenge the Park Commissioners to help us achieve that goal while meeting the criteria we have used in our search for a proposed site. We still want this to be a resource for the people, and with the least imposition on others possible, but we have a need too, one that isn’t addressed by existing facilities in our region.