Parking Plan at Dog Park Draws Howls of Protest

Times Staff Writer

People come to Runyon Canyon Park in the Hollywood Hills for its steep trails, its killer views of Los Angeles, the chance to spot celebrities out hiking. But its greatest draw by far, and a source of increasing community tension, is its role as the city's largest off-leash dog park.

Some residents whose homes press up against the 133-acre park say that, between the crowds and the barking and the stench and the canine feces, their quality of life has gone to the dogs.

The current catalyst for rising tension -- a city plan to build a parking lot inside the park -- has fueled a fight whose roots run deep.

In the end, the dispute centers on the fierce competition for open space in a dense city, and on the difficulty of maintaining civility when so many people have so many agendas for the same small patch of turf.

One vocal group against the parking lot says sacrificing nature for cars would be a travesty. Another group of local residents says the lot is a necessity. Still another group, from the upscale old Hollywood enclave of Outpost Estates, opposes the lot on the grounds that it wouldn't solve the problems and could bring more people to a place that is crowded enough.

Vista Street is a narrow road lined with large houses that ends at a park entrance. Although most people visit Runyon Canyon and then go home, on Vista, home pretty much is the park.

On a typical Sunday morning on Vista, Joyce Hunsaker stood at the edge of her driveway, into which six cars had pulled in the previous five minutes to turn around.

A big white dog off its leash squatted on her front lawn, its owner standing casually 10 yards away. "Smoke!" the owner shouted, without moving. "Smoke! No! Smoke, come here! Wait until you get in the park!"

Smoke didn't wait.

Hunsaker sighed as the dog's owner asked a friend if he had a bag she could use to pick up Smoke's mess.

Every parking spot on Hunsaker's street was full. Four cars were parked in a tow-away zone.

Hunsaker said she had called parking enforcement hours before. No one had come.

"This is a nightmare. A nightmare," Hunsaker said. "The yakking and talking, the dogs barking, the yelling at the dogs, the loud radios, the car alarms, the attitude.... Right now, we're the parking lot. We might as well be in the park."

Vista residents, who have stood on the street using clickers to count, estimate that 4,000 people and dogs pass through every week.

"It's not the dogs. I love dogs. It's the volume that's the problem," Hunsaker said.

Runyon Canyon Park stretches from just north of Franklin Avenue in Hollywood to Mulholland Drive.

At Mulholland, a dirt parking lot can accommodate about 25 cars. At the southern gate, there's only street parking.

Many Dogs, Many Cars

Most visitors drive to the park, many from as far away as Culver City, the Crenshaw district or Santa Monica.

They're passionate about the park, about the friendly atmosphere inside the gates and the joy they get watching cooped-up city dogs romp untethered up the hillside.

Many view the upset residents as rich whiners.

Stephanie Hubbard, seven months pregnant, had a tight grip on her leash as she walked up Vista. Seven-month-old Lucy, a border collie and German shepherd mix, tugged hard, eager to go faster.

Hubbard comes to the park about five times a week, driving from Olympic Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue.

"This is the only place where we can both get exercise at the same time. Lucy thrives here," Hubbard said. "It's such a vibrant, cool part of L.A."

Hubbard says she abides by the law -- picking up after Lucy and keeping the dog on a leash outside the park.

She has little sympathy for the nearby residents, who last year almost got the Vista gate closed.

City Councilman Tom LaBonge at first supported the closure. An announcement went up on the gate. Then came the protests. Hubbard went to a big meeting.

"The homeowners -- they were sitting like this with their preppy hairdos and their frowns," she said, puckering her lips as if she'd just tasted a lemon.

"They all seemed depressed, like they never get out and exercise," she added. "I'm thinking, 'Dude, get out and walk. You should be happy we come here.' "

Lately, different groups concerned about Runyon have been holding meeting after meeting.

There's been talk of problem solving -- from raising money for street cleanups to putting up signs asking visitors to remember they're in a residential neighborhood

But there's also been anger.

On Feb. 19, at the Hollywood Hills West Neighborhood Council meeting, a Vista resident listed all the problems on her street, from the danger of dog bites to the smelly brown rivers that flow out of the park when it rains.

When she suggested that it might be time to make dog owners leash their dogs, Mitch Gries, a Hollywood dog owner, lashed out. All homeowners worried about, he said, was dogs urinating on their lawns.

"Get off of it!" he shouted as others at the meeting shouted back that he should leave.

As he left, Gries, who has a black Labrador retriever named Knuckles, said dogs have as much right to the park as anyone.

"If I had to keep Knuckles on a leash all the time, he'd die of depression," he said.

LaBonge has spent plenty of time trying to mediate the Runyon Canyon dispute. He still sounds optimistic. This month, though, his office began referring people calling about Runyon to the Department of Recreation and Parks, saying park officials will hold meetings and look for consensus.

"You have to bring everyone to the table -- to the picnic table in the park. Everyone needs to know what everyone's needs are. There are those who speak for the residents, those who speak for the plants, for the dogs, for the wildlife," said LaBonge. "We have to figure out how everyone can enjoy the park and enjoy the neighborhood together."

In the meantime, the parking lot project -- 30 to 60 unpaved spaces that park officials say would look like a garden -- is on hold.

Endless Arguments

And the sparring continues.

At the recent neighborhood council meeting, some attendees who wanted to talk about other things left halfway through, muttering, when they realized that the arguing over the park would never end.

Vista Street residents accused Outpost Estates residents of being selfish, fighting against the parking lot from the luxury of streets without a parking problem. Dog owners glared at residents. People repeatedly cut one another off in mid-sentence.

Leigh French, a Vista resident, said she'd survived an earthquake and cancer, but wasn't sure how much more she could take of life by the park.

"We've reached a critical mass," she said. "There are too many rats in the cage."

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