As evidence mounts that the prime child-raising generations at the moment seem to prefer raising pets over children, it should come as no surprise that a growing number of residential developments host dog parks as a predictable amenity. I’ve covered the topic numerous times before: from a forest clearing in a tucked away corner of a subdivision in suburban Indianapolis, to a two-tiered space in a crowded city plaza in Jersey City that sequesters small dogs from large ones (Indiana and New Jersey together in one article). And then one in Silver Spring, Maryland that was so tiny it seemed to be an afterthought, and even a rural interstate exit ramp in eastern Ohio that offered a place for cooped-up pets to play. It would seem that I have probably exhausted the subject by now. yet with each iteration I find a slight tweak that is sensitive to the milieu, like variations on a theme. New developments will inevitably keep installing dog parks as long as the value of the park as an amenity exceeds its operational costs, which is likely to remain the case as long as the demand persists. And I see no evidence of a diminution in the demand for dogs; that dog park becomes an ever-increasing selling point.
And this persistent love of all things doggy is the main explanation I can surmise for the dog park I noticed at a fairly typical apartment tower in Alexandria, Virginia, that unintentional suburb of DC. (I call Alexandria an “unintentional suburb” because it’s quite a bit older than the nation’s capital. It was a freestanding town, but the Northern Virginia suburbs stretched out to engulf it.) I failed to capture any good photographs of the Whitestone at Landmark apartments, so this Google Street View image from the main access road (Whiting Street) will have to suffice. Though unusually tall by most suburban standards, many of the close-in Northern Virginia suburbs feature expanses of massive apartment developments, no doubt reflective of the transient nature of many people whose owe their jobs to various federal contracts. Whitestone at Landmark is not a new structure; in fact, the “landmark” referenced in the title is almost certainly the nearby Landmark Mall, a former retail behemoth that I featured in its dying days (when it was entirely closed except for the Sears). The Sears vacated Landmark Mall about two years ago, leaving it completely empty; the demolition of the huge, fortuitously located mall structure is underway as I type this article. In a few years it should host a branch of Inova Hospital, combined with a mix of residences and shops surrounding it. Landmark Mall opened to the public in 1965; my suspicion is the Whitestone at Landmark apartments date a few years later.
But that’s not the point of this article. The reality is the Whitestone features a dog park, at the far end of the parking lot, which is visible in this unlikely Street View. From the iink I just provided, the main building is there to the right. Follow the parking lane down to the horizon line, and one encounters a border fence. But a small gap in the fence offers something else:
Through that fence is a wooden stairwell, providing direct access down a slope to the dog park in question:
And there it is. It’s not a particularly earth shattering park; the very basic rules on the sign suggest a facility that doesn’t anticipate a whole lot of doggy problems. And if problems do arise, the management at Whitestone seems to expect that dog-moms and dog-dads will be able to resolve them amicably enough. No forced separation of Bull Mastiffs from Pomeranians.
What really caught my attention was that slope. I had the sneaking suspicion I had stumbled across a vestigial valley and that some minor tributary to a creek was nearby. I explored the growth surrounding this dog park.
No dice. I saw nothing. My attempt was to postulate that the property managers had chosen this sloped site for a dog park because of its proximity to this imagined tributary, which would like may it (due to its lower elevation) a floodplain, unsuitable for housing but perfect for canine recreation. From the vantage point of the dog park, the slope leading back to Whitestone is obvious.
But there’s no evidence of either a creek or some intermittent stream that civil engineers effectively forced underground through culverts. Nothing. This aerial reinforces the condition in question, where I have outlined the approximate boundaries of the Whitestone property in pink.
The eastern portion of the pink rectangle is the dog park. But there’s no waterbody anywhere in the vicinity. So what does this mean from a development standpoint? Back in the 1960s, the developers who designed and constructed the Whitestone owned the entire narrow property but only developed the portion closest to Whiting Street; the other portion remained forested. I can say with complete confidence that the dog park was not part of the original development because dog parks didn’t really exist fifty years ago. They weren’t common even twenty years ago. But why didn’t they develop the space with another apartment building?
I believe the slope was the factor. The grade change isn’t tremendous, but it’s big enough: about twenty feet between the parking lot and the dog park. Building a a moderate slope is perfectly reasonable but may be undesirable given the perviousness of the higher elevation. All that pavement would mean that, without significant stormwater management, the lower ground would contend with runoff, funneled downward through all the concrete and asphalt in the more elevated area hosting the Whitestone apartments and their parking. All that imperviousness would make any low-lying areas more prone to ponding, if not outright flooding. Besides, the adjacent strip mall (visible on the aerial immediately to the east of my pink box), whether constructed before or after the Whitestone, is even lower lying than the adjacent forest and would further contend with even more potential runoff, generating conflict between two property owners. The developer of the Whitestone potentially decided that the cost of constructing something like a retention pond on the low-lying, eastern portion of the property outstripped the capital afforded by another apartment building. So why not just leave the space green?
In fairness, a dog park like the one here at Whitestone at Landmark isn’t all that ecological. The material within the chain-link fence is, if I recall correctly, a fine gravel that prevents the area from turning to ankle-deep mud after a rain. It’s far less pervious than the turf grass surrounding the fence, impervious enough that at least some subdivision and land development ordinances would consider a dog park like this to be part of the overall total “pervious coverage” that would trigger a more comprehensive stormwater review. But it’s far less impervious coverage—and thus better for the environment—than if the site included another apartment building and its inevitable parking lot. A compromise.
My final estimate is that, in the early 1970s, Whitestone at Landmark’s original developer conceived a site plan that cleared the woods down this slope to provide for an amenity. But that amenity was a children’s playground, not a dog park. After all, fifty years ago, dog parks were but yet a twinkle in some canine advocates’ eyes. Eventually, the playground equipment aged and fell into disuse. After all, it’s an obscure space, and the only people using the parking lot at Whitestone are the residents, their visitors, and the patrons of a few tiny medical offices occupying leased space on the first floor. The property managers also noticed that, if they were to continue to brand the apartment towers to a middle-market clientele, it was unnecessary to appeal to families. Concomitant with a renovation (no doubt necessary by the 1990s or early 2000s), it was time to reinvigorate a flagging amenity, so management transformed the playground to a dog park. The affluent yuppie demographic they sought to retain (in an area increasingly dominated by first-generation immigrant families) had more interest in canines than kids.
Thus, out of continued aspiration in keeping the area woodsy amidst acres of concrete, yet another dog park was born. The apartment towers themselves look like good construction, and demand for rentals doesn’t seem to prompt the rapid depreciation we witness in other metros. Will it survive another twenty years? If demand for dog parks ever flags, we have other options: volleyball, disc golf, or (if we’re feeling cynical) space for a new homeless encampment. Or, as I suspect, our penchant for pets will persist.