It's a brisk Tuesday morning, and the air is clean and fresh. Menlo Park's Nealon Park is humming with energy. An all-women exercise group, led by an enthusiastic instructor, is roused into step-ups on the softball bleachers, exertion evident in the tiny clouds exhaled. The adjacent daycare is full of toddlers happily engaged by their caretakers.
Across the park, two people stand talking with their dogs. They are Gary Kenworthy, a dogwalker from Redwood City with dogs Pepper and Mango, and Kathy Schoendorf, a longtime resident of Menlo Park with her dog, Kassidy.
They are two of what they say is a crowd of at least 30 dog owners who flock to the softball field for the two hours each weekday morning it becomes a dedicated dog park. Over the years, Ms. Schoendorf says, she's developed a strong network of friends among the other dog owners at Nealon Park.
"It's like therapy for us," she said.
The ethos of community at the dog park, she said, shows when it comes to doo-doo duty.
"You just pick it up," she said, even if the droppings don't belong to your dog.
She says she's lived in Menlo Park for 30 years, never had kids, and has always paid her taxes. "All I want," she said, "is someplace to take my dog."
Before Nealon Park, she says, she used to take her dog to La Entrada Middle School on Sharon Road, where she had problems with her dog running away.
The Nealon Park dog area trial began in 2003 to give the city's canines a place of their own. The city designated certain times and areas at Willow Oaks Park and Nealon Park for dogs to be off-leash.
However, the park now has $250,000 in city funding budgeted for renovations, and Menlo Park Community Services Director Cherise Brandell said a priority is establishing a permanent dog park area. Sharing the softball field with dogs was a temporary fix, and while it lasted more than a decade, she said, it creates certain hygiene hazards. The dogs should really have their own space, she said, so athletes using the softball field don't have to constantly watch their step.
Preliminary designs for the dog park place it on an open field adjacent to the Nealon Park playground. However, local parents aren't so sure they're ready to give up that area, which their kids play on, for dogs to be there.
A survey and input meeting held Nov. 10 sparked a number of territorial emails to the City Council from neighborhood residents and frequent park-goers, particularly mothers of young children.
Several said that their kids play, learn to walk, and even have birthday parties there. The loss of the open field, some said, would have a negative impact on their children's play.
"Having dogs run around with their droppings and chaos will make that area unsafe for young families like ours," wrote Alison Wong.
Annley Dempsey wrote that many children, including her own, have learned to ride their bike in this open field, with the grass cushioning their fall. "I guess if this place were lost, my youngest son will need to experience the harsh reality of living in an urban world and crash on asphalt while pedaling," she said.
Yee Yie Fogarty wrote: "I do not think that the interests of dogs/dog owners should supersede the vital role of play and exercise in children's lives."
While some might argue that the adjacent playground ought to fulfill a place for play and exercise for children, other parents say the open space is important for fostering "unstructured play" for children.
"While the playgrounds are so beloved in our family, it's the open space that invites (my daughter) to use her imagination and learn how to interact with the world on her own terms," mother Lauren Uyeshiro said.
During a City Council meeting Nov. 10, several others added their two cents' worth of feedback: "Give children more weight than the dogs," said Knute Ream. "This is a big deal to parents in the community," said Sarah Speakman. Both are parents of small children.
Mayor Catherine Carlton told the speakers the council would listen to dog owners, parents, users of the softball field and nearby residents before making any decisions.