In the Quest for Places to Let Dogs Run Free in the Gables, Will 2023 Be the Year of the Dog?
For Sylvia Antiga McCabe, who lives near Catalonia Park, it’s not an issue of dogs versus people. An owner of two small dogs, McCabe is dedicated to the happiness of her pooches, walking them several times a day through her leafy neighborhood. But she wants no part of the controversy snarling at the park.
For the better part of a year, nearby residents have been complaining that their small, family-oriented park has been overrun with off-leash dogs. As if transmitted through an invisible network of dog owners, word went out that Catalonia Park was the place you could let your beast run free.
At City Commission meetings over the spring and summer, residents howled in protest, with lurid descriptions of kids covered in strewn feces and encounters with and between aggressive dogs. Even Commissioner Kirk Menendez chimed in with reports that small children had been terrorized, calling it “Chaotic Park, not Catalonia Park.”
McCabe, like her neighbors, was incensed that dog owners from other parts of Miami descended onto the park, which was originally designed — with neighborhood input — for children. Dog invaders also ignored protocol. “Even though the park is not officially a dog park, the fencing has enabled dog owners to let their dogs run free in the park,” says Catalonia resident Linda Kries. “Their owners have often not cleaned up after their pets and the dogs have torn up the sod. Also, people have driven to Catalonia Park to run their dogs and have created a parking problem.”
In the end, it took the presence of Coral Gables police officers to bring the canine calamity under control. But what the bruhaha revealed was a stark fact: the City of Coral Gables has no dog parks where canines can run off-leash, mingling with other dogs in playful freedom. Yes, dog owners can let their hounds run free in West Matheson Park, the massive open area west of Old Cutler Road. The same goes for Chapman Field Park at the city’s southern tip. But while both lie within the city’s boundary, they are county properties; the city itself has no neighborhood parks with enclosed dog runs.
To its credit, the city has designated 27 parks as “dog friendly,” which means that dog owners can use the space so long as they keep their pets on-leash — and use the dispensers for dog-waste baggies, with their adjacent trash receptacles. And at least one city commissioner — Vice Mayor Michael Mena — has for years promoted the idea of a large dog run next to the Douglas Station of the Metrorail, as part of the Underline Project.
“It’s been a challenge over the years because you need a substantial amount of space to do something that residents want, and something that will last,” says Mena. “Too small and it gets worn out quickly.” The Underline location is both large enough — and far enough from any houses — to both fit the bill and avoid NIMBY (Not in My Back Yard) reactions from homeowners. “Residents don’t want people driving into their neighborhoods to walk their dogs. We have so few that a dog park becomes a destination, and people push back on that.”
The only problem with what is being called Bark Park is timing. The plans were completed in 2019, but the Underline has still not reached the Gables. That, says Underline founder Meg Daly, depends on when the county awards the project to a construction team (while the city is paying for the 14,000-square-foot park, the county is building it).
“We have the permits and drawings, and have had the community meetings, but unfortunately we don’t have a date,” says Fred Couceyro, director of the city’s Community Recreation department. “Hopefully it will open by the end of 2023.”
In the meantime, another champion of dog parks has risen to the occasion, City Commissioner Rhonda Anderson. The owner of two rescue greyhounds, Anderson decided to take matters into her own hands and search for an appropriate place in the North Gables, where demand for a dog run is highest. “I went around identifying areas and suggested Salvadore Park [to the City Commission]. It wouldn’t cost the city any money to buy additional land. I went out there with a measuring tape and put it on the city agenda.” She also went door to door and asked nearby residents their opinions, to make sure they wanted a dog-only park.
They did, and the result will be a big-dog lot surrounded by six-foot fences, running along the south side of the Salvadore tennis courts. Plans are underway for the park to be finished before the end of the year. And instead of grass, which large dogs would rip to pieces, or astro turf, which burns their feet when they run hard, it will be a sandy lot. “I got the idea [for the sand] because dogs love to run on the beach and in the sand pits at golf courses, and it doesn’t burn their paws,” she says.
At least one developer has also responded to the need for somewhere that Fido can run free. Rishi Kapoor, the CEO of Location Ventures, set aside land for a dog park adjacent to Villa Valencia, his company’s mid-rise condo project at Valencia Avenue and Hernando Street. It’s an off-leash park for small dogs only and will soon be officially open as the city’s first dog-run park.
Kapoor is also expected to open a large-dog park at 1505 Ponce de Leon Blvd., where another of his firm’s mid-rises should begin construction late next year. Here he will offer a large open space, which will then be reduced for a permanent dog run after the condo is completed. “Coral Gables is a special city that celebrates green space in neighborhoods made for families and their furry friends to enjoy,” says Kapoor. “As dog lovers ourselves, we thought a dog park would be the perfect addition.”
A City Not Designed for Dogs
Of course, all of these efforts beg the question of why George Merrick, in the creation of his visionary City Beautiful, did not incorporate the concept of places to exercise dogs. It may have been that so much open space was then available, in what was uninhabited pine barrens and farmland. Or it may have been the times that were just not that dog friendly.
“Have you looked at the old photos? I haven’t seen any dogs in them, except for ones you see at racetracks,” says Anderson. “And we have a different social atmosphere now. During COVID especially, people would walk around and meet up at a par- ticular park that wasn’t marked as on-leash only… It was a great social event for the people — and the dogs liked it too.”
There is little doubt that, today, Coral Gables is a dog-loving community. “I think overall it is a dog friendly city,” says dog owner Janet Nostro, who lives on Catalonia Avenue. “Lots of folks here love their dogs [and] it’s also a great way for dog owners to meet other neighbors… but it could be a little friendlier, with more places for dogs to run around.”
Some dog owners, especially those with smaller dogs, simply can’t resist letting their pups off-leash. Dog walkers who live along Country Club Prado frequently let their dogs run free in the green swath that extends for nearly ten blocks between the streets that line their homes there, and with little grief, since the Prado is not a park for kids. “I usually go around Country Club Prado or the golf course,” says resident Christie Tojdowski, who owns two small dogs, including a wirehaired terrier mix. “The good thing is that these guys can run around in the middle area, and so I let them go.”
Ashley Airaghi, a legal consultant who lives on Blue Road and walks her rare Blue Merle Jack Russell (Sofie) three times a day, routinely lets her pooch off leash in a local dog-friendly park near her home — but not without asking permission of anyone there first. “When no one is there, I let her off leash, or if all of the parents say it’s okay. She is friendly and plays with the kids, which the parents love, because it wears the kids out.”
Occasionally bending the rules is no substitute for parks where dogs can run free, however, and for that, 2023 may be The Year of the Dog. “I live in front of Salvadore Park, and at this park, if you look at the signs, dogs cannot be off-leash,” says Carlos Beilenstein, whose 10-year-old Angus is a Springer Spaniel. “That is a problem for me. I think they should have parks where the dogs can be off-leash. I understand the issue with the kids and whatever, but Coral Gables is large enough that we should have maybe one option without a leash and one with leash.”
“Some communities are in favor of dog parks, and some are not,” says Community Recreation’s Couceyro. “Some want playgrounds, some don’t want them anywhere nearby. It all depends on what the community is comfortable with.” Having said that, he adds, “When I first came here [26 years ago], dog parks were geared toward running free, and you needed a big area. But it’s gone from being just for the dogs to a social hub, a community meeting place. So smaller areas become more acceptable… and as development has continued everywhere, the need for something, regardless of size, has really grown.”
Gabrielle Lord and Kylie Wang also contributed to this story.