New Orleans — When a $500,000 Mickey Markey Park overhaul begins next month, it will mark the end of the de facto dog run that has been an unofficial feature of the popular Bywater park for a decade or so.

The city, through mayoral spokesman C. Hayne Rainey, said that dog owners will soon be able to gather at a nearby off-leash area within the riverfront park slated to open this spring. But few dog lovers believe that the riverside dog run will actually materialize or that it will be big enough.

Vic Richard, head of the New Orleans Recreation Development Commission, said that “animals will not supersede humans” on the properties he runs and that no NORDC property, including Markey Park, has ever been a legal off-leash dog area. He cited phone calls about off-leash dogs that he’s gotten, including one about a man in a wheelchair who was bitten.

About a year ago, children were playing in the dog park and dog owners called police to make them leave.

“That got a few people upset,” said Susan Brady, a board member for the New St. Claude Association of Neighbors, which covers the part of the “original Bywater” between St. Claude to Claiborne avenues.

A recent neighborhood survey found that two of the top three reasons people didn’t use Markey Park were dog droppings (44 percent) and dogs off leash (31 percent). But one of top reasons that people used the park was to play with dogs (51 percent).

In the past week, as word spread that the redesigned Markey Park would not include an off-leash area, dog owners mobilized. They set up a Facebook page, recruited people to create pro-dog sidewalk chalk drawings outside the park and launched an online petition in support of their contention that “(o)verwhelmingly, the neighborhood wants part of the park to remain an off-leash dog park.”

A Bywater Neighborhood Association statement defended the decision.

“Markey Park cannot ‘remain’ a dog park, because it is not, in fact, a dog park.”

When Miles Swanson and his dog Huey visit Cabrini Playground in the French Quarter, he hears that after a new playground is added to the park, dog owners won’t be welcome there.

Eventually, the city will create a dog run a few blocks away on part of the former St. Aloysius High School site on Esplanade Avenue at Rampart Street, one of the 11 sites where the city plans to create fenced, off-leash dog areas.

The plan calls for creation of two such dog parks in each City Council district, with an extra one in District C’s Algiers Point neighborhood across the river, Rainey said.

The site selection was based on the work of a Citizens Advisory Task Force on Dogs in Parks, Rainey said.

At first, the list of 19 proposed off-leash sites included unofficial dog runs like Cabrini Playground and Markey and Wisner parks.

The development commission reviewed the 19 sites and narrowed the list to 11, Rainey said. And although none were funded for this fiscal year, he said, that didn’t affect the riverfront dog run, which is already under construction.

Richard looks at the issue from a citywide perspective.

The push for dog parks is really confined to those who live in the areas near the river, he said.

“Certain parts of the city could care less about a dog,” he said. “The Lower 9 and New Orleans East, they really didn’t care about having a dog park or a designated area for dogs.”

Resource-strapped cities across the nation are seeing similar conflicts about dog parks, which a Trust For Public Land report called “the hottest new city park issue to hit America,” noting that the trend is spurred by demographic shifts: Increased households with dogs and fewer with children.

According to 2010 census data, in the area commonly referred to as the Bywater — the section bordered by Chartres, Kentucky and Press streets and St. Claude Avenue — only 9 percent of residents are younger than 18.

But Markey Park is supposed to serve “the original Bywater,” which runs all the way past St. Claude to Claiborne Avenue, said Bywater Neighborhood Association board member Lisanne Brown, who conducted the Parks and Recreation survey of the neighborhood in 2010 and was elected to the board the following year.

In the “original Bywater” area, 26 percent are children.

A casual Markey Park visitor might conclude that Bywater has prioritized dogs to a ridiculous level. The grassy off-leash area, with its mudpit, freshly dug holes and scattered plastic chairs, takes up roughly two-thirds of the land.

The dogs run within the ragged fence line of what was once a baseball diamond. Dedicated in the 1970s, the field reverted to green space within a decade as the New Orleans Recreation Department stopped operating programs there, partly because foul balls ricocheted off nearby houses on a regular basis, neighbors said.

The park declined to the point where dog owners were removing hypodermic needles and condoms on a regular basis, said dog owner Randi Kaufman, who brings her dogs to the park every night after work to unwind.

After Hurricane Katrina, when no one from the city was mowing the park, she and other park regulars pooled their money to buy a riding lawn mower and cut the grass themselves.

When neighbor Erica Knott spearheaded an effort to put new equipment in the rusted, decrepit playground, Kaufman helped her apply for funding from Allstate, which donated a playground that Knott, Kaufman and other neighbors helped to install.

When the park redesign meetings were announced, Kaufman, who works in public health, distributed fliers far and wide.

And while the turnout was “huge,” dog owners didn’t argue for their current share of the park; they agreed that a lot of the space should be for kids and another part for people who had neither dogs nor kids, she said.

Dog owner Julie Jones said that the decision to exclude Markey from the list of those spaces disregarded hours of footwork and trips to City Hall by dog owners, she said.

“It’s death by charrette,” Jones declared. “Death by task force.”

“They are correct, to a certain extent,” Richard said, noting that one of the early drafts for the park did include an off-leash area.

“People feel that way because they didn’t get what they wanted.”

This story is published in cooperation with the Internet news site The Lens,