Downtown Could Get a Dog Park Soon

With more pups in the heart of the city, momentum is building for a new dog park.

Momentum continues to build for a Downtown dog park that would activate and beautify a vacant parcel beneath I-794. A fundraising effort for the project, which has an overall budget of $1 million, remains in full force with a goal of having all the necessary money in hand by the end of the year.

Serious talks of creating a Downtown dog park have been ongoing for at least five years, Historic Third Ward Business Improvement District #2 and Milwaukee Public Market Executive Director Paul Schwartz said.

“The sheer need for a Downtown dog park has been talked about among residents for probably decades,” Schwartz said. “We are just trying to fill the need for an amenity that our peer cities around the country have.”

Schwartz noted that the closest existing dog parks to Downtown are in Bay View, more than three miles away, and Riverwest, at a distance of about five miles.

The proposed Downtown dog park would be located between Plankinton Avenue and the Milwaukee River at Clybourn Street.

Plans call for a dynamic, 12,000-square-foot dog run with a publicly accessible Riverwalk extension. Proposed features include separated small and large dog areas, synthetic turf with irrigation to ensure cleanliness, decorative fencing, water stations, agility stations, public art and opportunities for community programming and donor recognition.

The project is being led by Milwaukee Downtown BID #21, Historic Third Ward BID #2, Downtown Neighbors Association and other partners.

The design of the dog park is being developed by GRAEF, a Milwaukee planning, design, and engineering firm with a Downtown headquarters location.

A host of factors is fueling the need for a dog park, Milwaukee Downtown Economic Development Director Matt Dorner said.

“We’ve had so much growth that has taken place in the surrounding area,” Dorner said. “You’ve seen a lot of residential development take place, a lot of offices and hotels becoming dog friendly, and you have all these apartments being filled with folks who own pets.”

The number of Downtown residents with pets jumped significantly during the pandemic, further boosting the need for a dog park in the area, Schwartz said.

“Matt and I have done a ton of due diligence to make sure that this is filling the need we think it is and that it’s not just anecdotal,” he said. “The research that we’ve done shows that throughout COVID dog ownership spiked. People were at home and wanted companionship.”

Now, as Downtown businesses welcome employees to come back into the office, they are finding it necessary to establish dog-friendly workplaces, he added.

“They know they have to get people away from their pets or have their pets come into their workplace with them,” Schwartz said. “Part of the conversations we are having with some groups is that they are trying to be more pet-friendly because of this. Supporting the dog park could provide an amenity that their staff could use during a lunch break.”

But the push for the project goes beyond merely providing a play area for urban pups and is part of a desire to activate areas beneath stretches of the freeway system that carve through Downtown. The installation of lights, public art and a popular pickleball court already have spruced up some of those spaces.

“We wanted to focus on taking these often-forgotten spaces and turn them into community amenities for residents, businesses and visitors while also stitching together neighborhoods and make them more walkable,” Dorner said.

Many of these underused parcels beneath the freeway system have served as parking or the storage of construction equipment, Schwartz said.

“We think there are better opportunities and better usage of these sites,” he said. “There is so much potential with the under-freeway activation.”

The dog park would create a much-needed amenity while also improving a parcel that sits near the nexus of multiple Downtown neighborhoods, Schwartz added.

“It’s right in the center of everything,” he said. “There’s a huge opportunity for that corridor along the west part of the river. It’s only going to continue to grow. We have found that on the east side of the river there is probably more pedestrian traffic along the Milwaukee RiverWalk than there is along Water Street at some points during the day.

A capital campaign has been ongoing, and a Downtown Milwaukee dog park website launched last fall, providing the public with the opportunity to donate directly to the project at various funding levels. 

The project got a boost from PetSafe, a pet products manufacturer, which selected Milwaukee as one of five communities nationwide to receive a $25,000 Bark for Your Park grant to support the Downtown dog park.

“That raised awareness and opened doors and conversations that are ongoing,” Schwartz said. “We feel strongly that given the conversations that we’ve had, that we’ll fulfill the fundraising goal this calendar year and then go from there.”

Once the necessary funds are secured, the next steps would be to finalize the dog park design and take bids for construction.

“You can be motivated for the project because you really love your pet or because you really want to see that entrance point to Downtown cleaned up because every single day your emloyees are getting off the freeway right there,” Dorner said. “You accomplish a lot of things with this project.”

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Rich Rovito is a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine.