Though Coral Gables is a Dog-Friendly City, it Doesn’t Have an Official Dog Park
If you head south on Old Cutler Road, make a right onto N. Kendall Drive and then turn into the Hammock Lakes community on School House Road (SW 52nd Avenue), there’s a gated guardhouse. There is a guard, but everyone – both residents and visitors – are allowed entry. Keep driving, and just before the end of School House Road there is an entrance into West Matheson Hammock Park, which has become the informal dog park of Coral Gables.
The popularity behind the park for dog owners is obvious: There’s a ton of open space (98 acres, to be exact), plenty of trails to explore and, most importantly, no roads or cars to worry about. West Matheson has gained such renown that it is even called the Unofficial Dog Park on Yelp, complete with a map pinning the entrance on School House Road. Though this isn’t the main entrance to the park – which is on Old Cutler Road across from the north entrance to Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden – it has become the entrance of choice for park-goers. The reason is that the main entrance’s parking lot is in bad shape and the often-muddy trail to get from the lot to the park is one-third of a mile. In contrast, the entrance into the park through the Hammock Lakes residential neighborhood is on a paved road.
The gate, shown below, to this unofficial entrance to West Matheson Hammock Park is a simple, metal barricade on School House Road that is usually left open, Yet this one small gate has caused a lot of controversy. To make a very long and political story short, the residents of Hammock Lakes want it shut and essentially everyone else wants it open. The paved road going into the park from there was initially only meant for maintenance vehicles. Then it became an access for the handicapped who could not use the long and bumpy main entrance trail off Old Culter. What has residents upset is that this unofficial entrance has been used less by those with wheelchairs and more by those with four legs. Bill Ogden, president of the Hammock Lakes Homeowners’ Association, also notes that there is no security. “The west side [of the park] has never been patrolled, never been monitored, never been managed,” he says.
West Side Story
The battle over West Matheson Hammock Park is nothing new; it has been ongoing for nearly two decades. Though it is not an official dog park, dogs are nonetheless allowed on the property. “There are leash law signs in the park, so we do that,” says Douglas Fernandez, who takes his Labrador retrievers to the park. “We go there, we put them on a leash and that’s it.”
However, anyone who frequents the park knows that a majority of dogs are let off leash by their owners and are free to run around the unfenced area. Because of this, Ogden claims that his neighbors rarely use the park in the afternoons, when unleashed dogs can run up and jump on them. But the debate isn’t just about dogs being unleashed. The land is a Protected Natural Area under Miami-Dade County’s Environmentally Endangered Lands Program. “It would be nice if there were an area in Dade County where you could take dogs and run [off leash], but not in an environmentally sensitive park with no supervision,” says Ogden. “It just doesn’t work.”
The residents of Hammock Lakes are also unhappy about the traffic it has brought into the gated neighborhood. “Before the pandemic, it was up to over 4,000 cars a month and on the weekends over 200 cars a day going through our neighborhood, our streets, into the park,” Ogden says. But while the guard at the entry to the community records the license plates of visiting cars, there’s no way to track which cars are going to the park and which are guests of residents.
A Matheson Makeover
Regardless, the gate to West Matheson – and the entire park – may be closing temporarily anyways. The county has a master plan in the works to spruce up the neglected aspects of the park, including the main entrance on Old Cutler. The plan would improve the parking lot as well as build a boardwalk into the park to make the trail more accessible to those with disabilities. The entire park would be closed during construction, and when it reopens, private vehicles would not be able to pass through the “unofficial” gate on School House Road.
According to Ogden, the plan does include a three-acre fenced area for dogs to go off leash. Whether the neighborhood gate reopens or not after the construction is not up to the Hammock Lakes HOA. “It’s the county that controls the gate, it’s the county that makes the rules, it’s the county that said we’re going to close the gate and revert back to what was historically always the main entrance to the park,” says Ogden. “It’s just so incredibly upsetting that we’ve had to go through this and be accused time and time again of being an elitist neighborhood.”
A Dog Park-less City
While West Matheson Hammock Park has been dubbed the “unofficial dog park,” there is no official dog park within Coral Gables. Frank Rosell, the president of StudioBecker, the kitchen and bath design company on Ponce de Leon Boulevard, ventures outside city limits just for his Victorian bulldog. “We end up having to go to a dog park in the Grove,” he says. “It would be significantly better to have one close to home.”
Gables residents Debbie and Darrell Payne have been taking their dogs to West Matheson for 15 years, but they also went to the Grove (Blanche Park) when all Coral Gables parks were closed due to COVID-19. “I prefer [West Matheson] to take your dogs because it’s much more wide open,” said Debbie. “It gives the dogs a lot more space to kind of run around and explore.” The Paynes currently have two golden retrievers who just turned 5-years-old.
On the other side of the Gables border is Chapman Field in Palmetto Bay, which also has a dog park. “It’s rather odd that we don’t have a dog park in the Gables considering how many dogs there are here,” says Rosell. Darrell Payne has brought his dogs to Chapman Field, but he notes how long it took to drive there, and how the fenced area for dogs is a long walk from the parking lot.
With no designated dog park in the city, it comes as no surprise that so many residents take their dogs to West Matheson Hammock. “It’s just a little gem, especially when the weather cools off. It’s great for dogs,” Debbie says.
Plans for a Bark Park
Though Coral Gables doesn’t currently have an official dog park, it has been Commissioner Michael Mena’s project for years. Commissioner Mena doesn’t have a dog, but he was made aware of the issue while campaigning in 2017. “I knocked on doors talking to residents. [A dog park] was something that was routinely brought to my attention,” he says.
Two years ago, the commission approved having a dog park in the city. But finding a location was an issue in and of itself. “It’s sometimes hard to get support from the surrounding community to have it in their neighborhood,” Mena says. One reason? The same issue the residents of Hammock Lakes have: Increased traffic to the area.
They finally found the perfect spot: Near the Gables Station mixed-use development, bordered by Ponce, U.S. 1 and Le Jeune Road, which is currently under construction. Being adjacent to the Metrorail, the Bark Park will also be a part of The Underline. “It doesn’t border single family residential, it has parking, we like the idea of synergy with The Underline … and it’s close to public transportation,” says Mena.
Savino & Miller Design Studio revealed the renderings of the park at a meeting at the War Memorial Youth Center last year. It will consist of an 11,000-square foot fenced area for large dogs and a 6,700-square foot fenced area for small dogs. It will also have both a drink station and a wash station. The Bark Park will open in conjunction with Gables Station, which was originally slated for May 2020. Mena predicts it will be completed in the next six months. He hopes this first Bark Park will act as an “ice breaker” and will lead to more dog parks around the city, adding, “We would love to have other locations in the future, but this was a good location to start.”
The Dog Painter
Local Dog Portraits
Coral Gables resident Carina Segredo has been painting since she was young. She attended Palmer Trinity and graduated from Cornell’s School of Hotel Administration in 2019. “I always loved being creative, so I had concentrations in communications, marketing and fine arts,” Segredo says. “I always had an easel up, I was always painting.”
Her latest artistic project was to sell her paintings as a fundraiser for the Jackson Hospital Foundation during the peak of the pandemic. Those interested could either purchase a piece from the “COVID-19 Relief” collection or commission something else. “I received an overwhelming request for commissions of pets,” she says. In the end, she was able to make a donation of $3,500. Though the fundraiser is over, Segredo is still accepting pet commissions. The price of the painting varies on its size and how many pets are being painted. To commission a portrait of your pup, go to carinasegredo.com or email email@example.com.