Pint sized bark parks: when an undefined patch of land is going to the dogs.

I’m not sure what it is, but something about the downtown to the unincorporated Washington DC suburb of Sliver Spring, Maryland seems have spawned a number of unusual urban forms: acute angles, bizarre protrusions, and neglected little corners.  I’ve written about this once before: how a building’s orientation and street frontage created a little storefront that has no windows.  I’m sure the developer could have avoided this, but the fact remains that it didn’t, perhaps deliberately.  And the weird little pocket store seems to make sense in Silver Spring.  Perhaps it’s the unusual orientation of the downtown street grid, clearly visible in the map below:

As this map proves, the core comprises of a three-sided figure through the intersections of Colesville Road, Wayne Avenue, and US Highway 29 (Georgia Avenue) into three separate vertices.  The best descriptor I can come up with is “concentric trianguloids”, since the other streets parallel this imperfect three-sided form.  It’s nearly as confusing as central Boston, but it does create an interesting texture: long viewsheds are rare, since the bends and curves prevent contiguous lines of sight for more than a block or two. 

And buildings perch at these wedge-shaped intersections with massing that is completely antithetical to a typical suburb, or even a heavily built “edge city”, for which Silver Spring more than fits the bill.  It’s not always pleasing to the eye (though aesthetics are highly subjective) but it’s rarely drab.  And the confluence of metro lines and major highways, combined with its fortuitous location just a quarter mile from the border to the District of Columbia, all ensure that Silver Spring boasts a vibrant downtown scene, including a block of Ellsworth Street that seems to work quite well as a pedestrian-only zone, which is a rare phenomenon in the United States.

But all those acute angles echo result in some inexplicable nooks and crannies that the development community has sometimes struggled to put to use…but then they come up with an unlikely solution. Here’s one just a few blocks away from the heart of downtown Silver Spring, part of an expansive multi-building apartment development called The Blairs.

bark park at The Blairs apartments, Silver Spring MD

The little orange sculpture out front should provide a clue: it’s a dog park. Or, in this case, a bark park.  But if you’re anything like me, that orange dog was the only real signal that there might be a dog park nearby.  Because look at the park itself:

It’s tiny.  I’m not a great judge of area measurements, but I’m not an entirely terrible one either.  I’d wager that this space is less than 500 square feet.  It’s well-maintained and securely fenced, but it is fundamentally little more than an afterthought that endows a precise use to an awkward, wedge of land, created largely from the acute angle formed by the wall of the Blair apartment building and its adjacent parking garage.  The trees give it considerable shade, and it has a human-scaled bench, but the ground material is an odd choice: gravel that is smaller than the rocks immediately outside the bark park.  I suspect the smaller rocks are actually more comfortable on dogs’ paws, but it makes it impossible for them to run.  Perhaps that’s all the better, since the spatial constraints fundamentally prohibit running anyway.  And the gravel may be conducive for dogs who have to go number one, but it also makes it impossible to disguise when number two nature calls.  The dog-parents will feel tremendous pressure to pick it up.  All fine and good, but those dog-parents who fail to do so will leave the park far more undesirable than if it had been mulch or turf grass.  At least the poop is easy to spot.

This bark park serves little purpose beyond a tiny niche where owners can take their dogs (presumably small ones) off leash to do their business, wander around, and, if other dogs are present, to sniff a few butts.  But are there ever any butts to sniff?  Does it get use?   Incidentally, I visited the space again a few hours later, after dark, and a dog-dad was there with his mutt.  This dog-dad informed me that he does routinely take his dog there for precisely that purpose: living in an urban setting, in a high-rise apartment building without a yard of his own, he and most residents of The Blairs must always keep their dogs on leash when outdoors.  On occasion, his dog has found a canine companion during those brief visits to this tiny bark park.  It helps that it is unrestricted; the gate latches but there’s no key or fob activation, so anyone can bring a dog in.  It only has a single gate, however, so owners who worry about their dog running free if the first gate is open must take care, due to the lack of a back-up.  (The back gate closing the gap is permanently closed.)  It’s a placeholder bark park.  No faucet for filing water dishes, no obstacle courses, no restrictions for large or unlicensed dogs.  Amenity free.

The dog-dad informed me, however, that a larger, better bark park existed not so far away, elsewhere within the Blair Apartments campus that consists of the five or six buildings and their surrounding, amenity laden grounds.

It was about a five minute walk away, amidst grounds that featured picnic areas with (if my memory serves me correctly) a fire pit, a children’s playground, a swimming pool, and a community garden with leasable plots.

Unlike the tiny wedge featured in the daylight photos, this larger bark park was more restricted and monitored.  And yes, it was bigger.  But does it really fit the conventional standard for a dog park?  It consisted of a linear expanse of land that was no wider than the wedge-shaped bark park.  Possibly narrower.  The entrance was in the middle, with separate gates forking out to the west and east ends.  The west end was quite small.

And the eastern end, though larger, was only longer but no wider.

At the very least, this bifurcated bark park at least offers opportunities for dogs to play fetch, with the western end well-suited to smaller dogs and the eastern end to larger ones.  According to The Blairs website, it totals 5,000 square feet in size.  I can’t vouch for the truth of this measurement, but if it’s accurate, these bark parks owe this area to their length and not their width.

If more than three or four medium sized dogs were together in either enclosure, it would likely feel cramped, and amidst their rambunctiousness, a dog-mom or dog-dad may find their playful pups inadvertently colliding into the wrought-iron fence.  But at least they have room for fetch.

According to the dog-dad I informally interviewed, this larger park was double-gated but also broadly promoted as open to the public, ostensibly as a sort of dedicated space within an otherwise private complex that, perhaps through an easement, allows unrestricted community access, when the other adjacent amenities for residents only. It has well-groomed turf and excellent lighting, as well as a double gate (on both the east and west ends) to prevent dogs from escaping.  But it still feels like an afterthought: a strip of land between a pedestrian walkway and a grade-separated row of off-street parking that needed a dedicated use.  From a property management angle, I can respect this; it’s a more visible amenity than mere landscaping, conferring clear benefit to the community and probably requiring less day-to-day maintenance than many flowers, trees, and shrubs.  But if Silver Spring residents want a bark park where their pups can run, fetch, chase squirrels, dig, slurp water, or sniff a huge variety of doggie butts, their best option is the Ellsworth Urban Dog Park about a mile northwest of The Blairs.  Much like a dog park in Jersey City that I wrote about a few years ago, Ellsworth apparently segregates the dogs by size: those under twenty pounds get a smaller park, but safer from potential big dog aggression.

This article admittedly isn’t particularly revelatory, but it does reaffirm two premises: dog parks have become so appealing that they are now an expected amenity in areas where multifamily housing is abundant and yards are scarce; and that almost any otherwise neglected patch of land will suffice.  All it takes is an adequate fence.  A few years ago, at Urban Indy, I wrote about a proposed development on the site of a vacant charter school, which, thanks to its intact perimeter fence, served as a de facto dog park for a sizable downtown Indianapolis population nearby—a decision the property owner made in part to help build rapport with residents of the historic neighborhood, since he was planning on demolishing the non-historic school to build a higher density condo building with first-floor retail.

But my favorite example proves what I suspected all along: in highly urbanized neighborhoods where fenced yards—or anyyards—are scarce, people will settle for any opportunity for some off-leash time with Marley or Jessica (yes, I know of a Golden Retriever named Jessica).  It might get so bad, in fact, that property owners have to admonish the general public, as this private business do in the colonial neighborhood of Old Town Alexandria (Virginia).

When your doggo’s got to roam (and doo), anything’ll do.

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11 thoughts on “Pint sized bark parks: when an undefined patch of land is going to the dogs.

  1. AvatarCarin

    Interesting! I live right near The Blairs park and didn’t even know it was up and running, though I’d heard it was planned, because I’ve become part of a regular group at a somewhat larger and very well planned county dog park a mile or so away off Colesville Road just outside downtown Silver Spring. I believe The Blairs ended up with a park that seems somewhat awkwardly slotted in because it’s part of a larger, phased, long-term redevelopment plan for that whole complex, one of those “activate the space now” features we increasingly see with larger redevelopment projects. All of the older apartment buildings and the huge surface parking lot will be gradually replaced with new housing.

    I wish I knew more about the history that resulted in Silver Spring’s concentric trianguloids. Clearly some combination of the route of the 19th-century railroad, more or less where the Metro tracks are now, and the rural routes converging near but with rare exceptions not crossing those tracks, and therefore almost no continuity with DC’s streets as they expanded towards the District line in the early 20th century.

    Meanwhile, your larger point about dog parks in orphaned bits of land reminds me of what’s happened very successfully in DC with the S Street Dog Park in Dupont Circle: https://goo.gl/maps/KE7ufvNvsQpqNaND7 . It’s on one of those tiny triangles that’s an artifact of the L’Enfant Plan, where diagonal avenues slice up the street grid. Many of those tiny triangles are National Park Service land and so unavailable for development by the District government as community resources, but increasingly in recent years DC has succeeded in getting them turned over for local administration. Here’s an article from ten years ago about the frustrations of federal ownership of these tiny slivers of parkland: https://washingtoncitypaper.com/article/384944/no-parking-why-does-the-federal-government-still-control-d-c-s-circles-and-triangles/ The S Street Dog Park land certainly started out as a federal “reservation” since it appears as such on 19th-century maps, and I’m not sure when the transfer happened, but it’s a thriving, well-used park now and a signal success of the slow, slow turnover of community spaces to local control in DC.

    Reply
    1. AvatarAmericanDirt

      Thanks for your thorough response, Carin. It doesn’t surprise me that additional phases to The Blairs are on the horizon. But when you say “the older apartment buildings…will be replaced with new housing”, are you referring to the visibly older structures designed by Sasaki? It would be as shame to seem the gone altogether; it a significant renovation the more likely solution?

      You could be right about Silver Spring’s origins. The fact that it has never incorporated makes a coherent historic narrative harder to procure, and it suggests (in my opinion) that it developed less as formalized approach–no major land speculator platted a mega-housing development–and more through the fusion of smaller settlements overtime into one big nebulous mass of a suburb, for which the name “Silver Springs” won out. Don’t get me wrong–the town clearly had a rail depot and commercial that grew at a certain nucleus, but Forest Glen and Woodside Park and the Sligo Creek corridor were probably more clearly discrete communities at one point. This, of course, has nothing to do with the unusual road network, but it’s likely that the original rail corridor predated all but a few roads, so the grid emerged to accommodate it, much the way we see out west when the oldest part of a grid parallels the rail corridor, rather than aligning with conventional latitude and longitudinal grid lines.

      I’m glad you shared that article with the triangles in DC, and I’m familiar with the very nice looking S Street Dog Park. It doesn’t surprise me that there’s a mild turf war between NPS and DC Parks and Rec over their management, and that DC Parks would have more ambitious plans than the always cash-strapped federal agency. But I’ve never fully figured out how THIS particular triangle evolved the way it did: http://dirtamericana.com/2019/06/washington-dc-triangular-parcels/

      Reply
      1. AvatarCarin

        First, an apology: I somehow scrolled right past your mention of Ellsworth Urban Dog Park when I first replied, and of course that’s the nearby park I was talking about.

        Re the Blairs, it had been my understanding that the older residential buildings were to be replaced, but peering now at the too-small-to-interpret slides on the developer’s site, it looks like maybe they’ll remain but the site will be built up around them—? That would be good. Here’s the site: https://www.sasaki.com/projects/the-blairs/. I’m happy to see they plan to (re)integrate the street grid between Shepherd Park and EW Highway, which will make Metro access much easier from the DC side of the line.

        There is a lot of work being done these days on Silver Spring’s 20th c. history, particularly with regard to segregation, but we don’t have the magisterial history we need yet. And I remember seeing a book on the planning history of Silver Spring in the 1990s (I think) that led inter alia to the kind of urban-style massing you mention. The book was on the shelves in the National Building Museum’s shop a few years ago and I decided it was much too expensive, and now I can’t get The Google to yield up any evidence of what book I could be remembering. Shoot.

        And that wedge with the weird house on it, yeah, oof. I commuted past it to Catholic University the whole time it was being built. It is a mystery to me how it became or remained a privately-owned parcel.

        Reply
        1. AmericanDirtAmericanDirt Post author

          I had a lengthy response prepared to your response, but apparently my server crashed before I could send it. Sorry. That’s been a problem lately as the domain transfer gets completed. Anyway, I’d be happy if the renovation of The Blairs eliminates much of the superblock configuration while retaining the older buildings, insignificant though they may be compared to much of Sasaki’s portfolio.

          I haven’t been past that wedge with the weird house in over 18 months, but from what I could see using an archive of Google Street View, it sat in basically development stasis for quite some time. Unattractive though it may be, I’d much rather see the house completed than in a state of mothballed limbo, where the plywood starts to turn gray from age.

          Glad to know we were thinking of the same dog park about a mile away! Thanks for your responses.

          Reply
  2. AvatarChris B

    It was an aside in your piece, the “dog park” on East St. Google “Chatham Park” to see the developer’s website.

    Reply
    1. AvatarAmericanDirt

      Yes, I did extensive research on Chatham Park for an Urban Indy article back when it was still in dispute. I hadn’t checked their website in a while, but I did so based on your comment here. I couldn’t find anything; is the developer adding a pocket dog park to replace the massive, unofficial one he’s eliminating? I know that Bates-Hendricks is getting a new dog park, but I don’t know if there are any planned close to Chatham Arch at the moment (at least not official ones).

      Reply
      1. AvatarChris B

        No dog park.

        (That project was “in dispute” back when The Urbanophile decamped for NYC. I met the developer at the beer-and-pretzels “farewell” meet up.)

        Reply
        1. AvatarAmericanDirt

          I spoke extensively with the developer while he was trying to make his case against the NIMBYs like Chatham Arch Neighborhood Association. I wrote extensively in his defense on Urban Indy–probably the single lengthiest defense I’ve given of a single development, about as strong and emphatic as my non-defense of the OneAmerica Parking Garage.

          Sorry there won’t be a dog park, but the developer might be able squeeze one into some otherwise neglected little corner (hint hint) and make it accessible to residents only.

          Reply
  3. AvatarBrian M

    My favorite “informal” dog park was a large acreage of poorly defined land that was basically “undeveloped” cemetery district property. The neighbors evcentually got it closed, and the City of Davis, CA built another very nice park a few miles away (in a better location with no neighbors to annoy).

    As I mentioned, the informal dog park was poorly defined-and poorly fenced. For some reason, there was an odd little remnant rural inholding right next door with HORSES roaming around. My somewhat ill-disciplined pack discovered the horses one day and started chasing them around the paddock! So embarrassing, but no harm was ultimately done!

    Reply
    1. AvatarAmericanDirt

      Increasingly, that seems to be the narrative for how real dog parks get created: people find an informal one (mostly just a fenced area that the owners neglect or kindly share with the community), which prompts neighbors to advocate for a legitimate one. And while the dogs themselves are rarely picky, I can’t imagine that the first park featured at The Blairs is going to get an animal too excited to go off-leash. There’s no room to run and the gravel surface is sub-standard. It really is just a butt-sniffing park.

      Reply

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