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Tuesday, February 18, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Neighbors want park for dogs, not drugs

Seattle Times staff reporter

Backed by the Seattle Mayor's Office, frustrated neighbors hope to call in the dogs to drive out drug dealers at little Regrade Park in Belltown.

The urban park covers less than a quarter of a city block. It has a few trees, several untended concrete planters, a small basketball court and a public-art sculpture known as the Gyrojack.

City officials and neighbors near Third Avenue and Bell Street say the park is used for little more than prostitution and drug dealing and that turning a chronic trouble spot into a fenced off-leash area would let apartment-dwelling dogs run free while also improving the character of the park.

"The park is a nuisance," said Seattle Deputy Mayor Tim Ceis, who supports converting it to a dog run. "We're not leaving it as a public-safety problem."

If the park were made into a dog run, it would be the ninth and smallest of the city's off-leash areas.

"Given that it is in the dense part of downtown, there is a certain symmetry to that," said Seattle Parks and Recreation spokeswoman Dewey Potter, who has seen equally small and successful off-leash areas in New York and Boston. "We don't have the luxury of saying we need at least two acres."

So far, there is no organized opposition to the newly hatched plan. The city will hold at least one hearing to solicit comments.

"The public meeting will be interesting," said Gary Johnson, downtown neighborhood district coordinator. "Folks use the basketball court there; it's not only used by bad guys."

The Parks Department consented to off-leash areas just seven years ago, largely prodded by dog owners who formed COLA — Citizens for Off-Leash Areas. COLA has often had a polarizing effect on city officials, with Councilwoman Jan Drago generally supporting dogs while Council President Peter Steinbrueck believes the "dog people" have too much leverage politically.

What to do with Regrade Park has been the topic of "tens of meetings," Potter said.

"It's been like that for years," said Ed Peters, manager of Dan's Belltown Grocery, adjacent to the park. "It's just been a frustrating situation for everybody."

A swing set was installed to attract families a few years ago. But families didn't bring their kids to the park, and the swing set was pulled out. "Things get better for a little while, but it never gets better permanently," said Steve Wilske, operations lieutenant for the Seattle Police Department's West Precinct.

Residents say a lot of dogs live in nearby lofts and apartments. "I see dogs everywhere. This is definitely a dog city, especially Belltown," said Georgia McWeeney, desk manager of Marvin Gardens Inn Apartments, across from the park.

The idea to convert the park into an off-leash area was first broached by Belltown resident Mike Crill in September at a meeting of the Downtown Seattle Residents Council, a coalition of five downtown neighborhood associations. Crill, owner of a 155-pound Great Dane named Atlas, takes his dog to nearby Myrtle Edwards Park to run and likely wouldn't use Regrade Park as a dog run if it were converted to one.

His main goal, he said, is to drive away drug dealers and keep Belltown livable. "The smaller parks downtown are not used for legitimate purposes," he said.

Crill's off-leash idea withered for a time, resurfacing at a Jan. 16 meeting of the Downtown Seattle Residents Council that Ceis attended. With Ceis' backing, the off-leash idea gained momentum. Parks officials, police and COLA support the idea, said Ed Marquand, the resident council's vice president.

"That's a great idea," said Louie Raffloer, who lives in Belltown and works at a metal shop on Second Avenue. His dogs, 105-pound Duke and 135-pound Junky, manage about four or five walks a day.

"I take them wherever there is greenery," said Raffloer.

Sarah Anne Wright: 206-464-2752 or swright@seattletimes.com

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