L.A.'s downtown dogs spark a sort of turf war

A downtown Los Angeles pooch can enjoy a made-to-order meal at a local pet boutique, tag along for happy hour or spend an afternoon socializing at the cathedral, but what happens when nature calls?

Fido may have helped attract droves of new residents to a burgeoning downtown, but sharing the concrete city with their human counterparts is getting messy.

The latest attempt at stemming what some call "the pee situation" consists of three small patches of artificial turf in designated doggie areas.

"When you're walking through downtown L.A., you can tell when you get into dog territory," said Lindsey Barnett, manager at Bark Avenue's Pet Project. "Where are they supposed to pee?"

Blair Besten, executive director of the Historic Downtown Business Improvement District, said after mulling possible solutions to the smell, including regulations for pet-friendly buildings, the idea of a designated space away from restaurants and pedestrian traffic made sense. As part of a trial that began in August, the business district found three unused tree wells and installed 4-by-4-foot patches of artificial lawn.

If they're popular and hold up to regular use, the program may be expanded, Besten said.

Recently, a bluenose pit bull plodded up to the patch of fake grass near 6th and Main streets and sniffed it, flies buzzing around the product of a previous visitor. Sky squatted for a second to leave her mark and trotted back to her owner standing feet away on the concrete.

Randi Baptiste, 44, shook his head.

"They need to find the people who don't pick up after their dogs," he said. "I don't even want to stand next to it because it smells."

The ever-present stench is a growing problem in a neighborhood where more than one-third of the residents own a pooch, according to a 2013 demographic survey by the Downtown Center Business Improvement District.

Dog etiquette is not innate, and the problem goes beyond smelly sidewalks. Workers handle the area's urine-soaked trash cans, dripping buildings and sidewalks have to be hosed down, and residue is tracked into offices and apartments, Besten said.

The dogs — and their owners — have been an important piece of downtown's growth spurt. Concrete-floored historic buildings converted into residences were the perfect match for pet owners, said Hal Bastian, executive vice president of the Downtown Center Business Improvement District.

"Dogs have been the greatest thing for the downtown L.A. renaissance," said Bastian, one of the original leasing agents in the Old Bank district. "It creates a community because more people are on the streets. It's a better environment."

The "pee portion of the equation," he said, is just something that comes with that growth.

For Josh Jacobson, who recently moved from downtown Long Beach, finding a place for his two Chihuahuas to go has been a challenge. They aren't used to downtown's endless concrete and won't even step on the patches of turf — too many scents.

"The dogs are still trying to figure it out," he said.

In urban areas, there are a huge number of desired uses for greenspace — wilderness, sports, gardens — and dogs are just one more part of the equation, said Peter Harnik, director of the Trust for Public Land's Center for City Park Excellence.

"If you have a grassy area and dogs begin to use it as a toilet, that's all it will ever be," Besten said, adding that she understands dog owners' frustration over limited space for their companions.

Downtown resident Helena Gaeta said she has trained her dachshund-Chihuahua mix to go in tree wells but wishes there were more greenspace. Downtown advertising campaigns targeted dog owners, she said, yet there aren't many public spaces for dogs.

"They should have put them in a long time ago," she said of the turf patches.

The city's canines aren't going anywhere, Bastian said, and the key is public education. Signs instructing residents to "curb" their dogs and steer them away from doing their business on anything metal, on buildings or on planters in the sidewalks adorn trash cans throughout the neighborhood.

"I feel like there are more rules for dogs than for homeless people," said Danny Blanton, owner of Luke, an Australian Labradoodle, and Levi, a sheepadoodle. As he stooped to pick up after his dog, he considered disposing of another mess nearby but stopped himself — "Was it a human's or a dog's?" he wondered.

He said he tells his friends that the changes he sees in the area are an indication of downtown's makeover.

"You can tell a lot about a city by the number of strollers and dogs," he said, motioning to the streets, poop bag in hand.

As for the smell, some say it's just a part of living downtown.

Cassandra Macasieb, who was en route to the farmers market with bull terrier Bronxx, said living downtown is worth it for the dog culture, where pups have endless playmates and borrowing a poop bag is as easy as bumming a cigarette. She doesn't notice the smell anymore.

"We live in a city," she said. "How can you be mad?"

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