Two security guards leaned on a gate outside the El Dorado Lofts, watching the parade of foot traffic down Spring Street. It was just before dusk — prime dog-walking time — and for every few people who passed, there was at least one pooch.
The dogs strutted down the sidewalk, straining against their leashes, stopping here and there to lift a leg.
"Every tree gets tagged," said John Arias, 51, as a pug sniffed and then marked a nearby tree. "There's way too many dogs!"
Mickey Baker, 54, nodded: "There is a hell of a lot of dogs."
Baker and Arias aren't the only ones grumbling. A growing number of people say downtown's dog population has reached critical mass.
Just a few years ago, the proliferation of dogs was heralded as proof that a certain Westside hipness had arrived in the city's central core. Blogs and magazine photo spreads celebrated L.A.'s new breed of urban canine — one that patronized "dog parties" at posh nightclubs and ate frozen yogurt at the "paw bar" of a downtown pet boutique.
When Steven Areia opened up Bark Avenue doggy day care on Main Street two years ago, several homeless people complained to him that the dogs were treated better than the people living on the street.
The dogs were symbols of the demographic shift transforming downtown. As the human population soared — from 18,000 in 1999 to nearly 44,000 today — relaxed pet policies in downtown's new loft buildings ensured that the number of canines kept growing, too. According to the Downtown Center Business Improvement District, an estimated 40% of downtown residents own dogs.
But with growth comes, well, new challenges.
"It's the poo, man, the poo," said Sylvain Copon as he poured himself a late-afternoon whiskey in his art gallery on the corner of 6th Street and Spring. "All day, pee and poo. It's nonstop."
Ever since one pup decided he really liked the planter outside Copon's front door, the spot has become a favorite detour for dogs on their daily constitutionals. Worried that the resulting flies might bring disease, Copon bought an entire case of insecticide. He said he calls the Downtown Center Business Improvement District almost daily to complain.
The DCBID has weighed in, launching a small marketing campaign imploring owners to "practice good downtown dog etiquette."
According to a list of doggie do's and don'ts they've distributed to restaurants, stores and bars, that includes directing canines away from sidewalks, planters and fire hydrants and toward tree wells and curbs.
"Dogs have played an extraordinarily important role in the residential development of downtown," said Carol Schatz, president and chief executive of the coalition of downtown property owners, "but not having dogs poop on the sidewalk is kind of important to downtown livability."
Areia of Bark Avenue said he thinks dogs are a key part of downtown culture — and that downtown has bigger issues: "I think there's more of a problem with people urinating."
Copon, for his part, says the campaign isn't working. So he has become a vigilante, accosting strangers who are too busy talking on their cellphones to pay attention to what their dogs are doing to his building.
First he demands to know where they live, then snaps: "Now I'm going to go pee on your front door!"
Copon, who speaks with a rough French accent, said he thinks many downtown dogs are simply accessories.
"It's very fashionable," he said. "You go downtown, you gay, you have tattoo, you have dog."
Around the corner from Copon's gallery, at a vintage clothing and furniture shop called Flea, owner Caryn Hofberg is a little less militant but no less fed up.
"I'm like a dog fanatic, I love them," she said. "But I'm afraid it's going to be a dog epidemic. I've never seen so many unspayed or unneutered dogs — oh my God! And we don't really have any place for them to go."
Because there is little green space in downtown's grid of high-rises, lofts, factories and parking lots, many downtown pooches never get to play in dirt or run in the grass, Hofberg said. She finds this sad.
"A lot of girls go to FIDM [the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising, on South Grand Avenue] and they get designer dogs," she said. "But there's huge dogs too. There's Great Danes, there's mastiffs. There's a guy in my building with a Saint Bernard."
Hofberg said she would like loft owners to establish stricter dog policies and the city to better regulate animal licenses. Also, she said, "I have this vision that Cesar Millan, the Dog Whisperer, could do something great down here."
She's worried about a new loft about to open across the street — "it could bring 300 more dogs!" — but she also caters to her dog-owning customers.
On the wall behind the cash register is her montage of photographs of "my little friends that come visit me": Stella, Vinnie, Sweet Cheeks, Yum Yum. And she keeps a dog bowl full of water and a jar of gourmet pet treats at the ready.