Dogs on the Commons

Louis and Riley. 

It’s a common adage in New York City that the most frequently broken law is jaywalking. For Ithacans, it can be argued that walking dogs on the Ithaca Commons is probably the most commonly broken law. For years, dog owners have gone before several City of Ithaca boards to argue in favor of allowing dogs on the Commons, but to no avail. 

Dog owners know that argument well by now. They’ve battled since the early 2000s, starting with the effort to secure a dog park, according to Seth Sicroff, a longtime Ithaca resident.

Lately, though, they have shifted their focus to the Commons. Ordinance 157 states: “No animals are allowed on the Primary Commons except by special permit. This provision does not apply to service animals providing assistance to people with special needs and police working dogs.” Cities such as Berkley, California and Boulder Creek, Colorado have pedestrian malls similar to The Commons and allow dogs there. Special provisions are made to ensure that pet owners are able to have the right tools to clean up after their dogs. The City of Ithaca’s been debating for months whether or not to change their own laws, a process that currently rests with the Public Safety and Information Commission, who have been studying the pros and cons of allowing Commons canines since earlier this year. 

Sicroff took a recent stroll down the Ithaca Commons with his dogs, two large Irish wolfhounds. The goal was to walk from one end of the Commons to the other and back as a way of gauging public opinion about having dogs there. Some passersby hesitated at first, due in part to the size of Sicroff’s dogs, but most didn’t seem to mind at all. Some dogs, after all, are some of the most iconic aspects of the Commons: not many have ventured downtown without passing by Riley, the extremely well-behaved unofficial mascot of The Outdoor Store, who can sometimes be seen roaming that part of the Commons and often ventures over to Lou Cassanitti’s hot dog stand. 

Normally, a walk along the Commons normally takes about 10 to 15 minutes, but Sicroff seemed to be walking for at least 30 to 40 minutes before he was finally able to reach his final destination due mostly to people wanting to talk about his dogs. Throughout the walk, several dogs were spotted on The Commons, and people didn’t seem to mind. One visitor to The Commons on Sept. 7, during the Downtown Ithaca Alliance’s Downtown Days, said the law is just difficult to enforce; who wants to dedicate resources to patrolling the Commons for our four-legged friends?

Most residents who argue against having dogs on The Commons are concerned about the safety of patrons, as well as maintaining the Commons’ cleanliness despite owners who don’t pick up after their dogs. Kris Lewis, the operations director for the Downtown Ithaca Alliance (DIA), oversees the organization’s hospitality booth downtown, and along with helping people find their way around, she has her hospitality ambassadors keep a running tally of how many dogs they see during a five-hour period on The Commons. 

Over several days, the hospitality ambassadors tracked an average number of  14 dogs per day, with a high of 27 on Aug. 24 and a low of one several weeks before (these numbers aren’t exact, obviously, but do provide at least a ballpark frame of reference). Lewis gave her thoughts on the issue of dogs on The Commons, which many residents have echoed. 

“The Commons is the only public place in the City where leashed dogs are not allowed,” Lewis said. “I don't think any amount of signage can adequately convey the fact that this wide-open pedestrian street is not pet-friendly. And, data shows that dogs are on the Commons every day. I would like to see the law changed to allow dogs on the Commons with strictly enforced leash laws and fairly steep penalties if folks fail to clean up after their pet.”

Deidre Kurzweil, the owner of Sunny Days, is one of the residents who feels the signage doesn’t properly alert people to the laws of The Commons. During the Sept. 4 Common Council meeting, Kurzweil spoke about people not following the rules of The Commons, but also about how the law should be repealed entirely. For many, Kurzweil said, dogs are an extension of a person’s family. 

“For many people, dogs are their children and for visitors, who travel with their ‘children,’ they don’t even know,” Kurzweil said. “So, here is The Commons, where you want visitors to come see and explore and enjoy, they don’t know before they make their plans to come visit Ithaca that their dogs aren’t going to be allowed. They’re going to go hiking, they’re going to go here, they’re going to go there, and of course, their dog can do those activities with them. It doesn’t make any sense that somebody is walking around with The Commons, but they can’t walk through The Commons with their dog. It’s not enforceable nor do I think that it should be enforceable.”

Kurzweil further opined that the well-documented staffing strain on Ithaca Police Department officers makes policing the Commons difficult in general. She would, however, like to see smokers that throw cigarette butts on the ground or dog owners who don’t clean up after their dogs penalized. But laws like that, such as the Commons smoking ban, can be harder to enforce, especially considering the Commons is an outdoor space. She’s seen plenty of people riding bicycles and skateboards along The Commons, though they technically are supposed to be walked. Further complicating this matter is the set of bicycle racks near Thompson and Bleecker on the eastern end of the Commons near N. Aurora Street. 

“I personally think that they should pretty much all be abandoned, not completely, but that it’s not realistic to enforce all the rules that we have nor do I think that it should be a priority,” Kurzweil said. 

Kurzweil has said she would like to see dogs on leashes, which will keep. Kurzweil’s idea of new signage is a large sign welcoming people to The Commons with a reminder to be courteous to others and not to litter. She also recommends having signs throughout The Commons that show where the designated busking locations are. She has run into problems of people having their dogs off-leash, something she is against in a setting like The Commons. 

Considering that most new residential buildings such as City Centre boast pet-friendly amenities such as dog-washing and grooming station on the ground floor and pet-friendly apartments. For dogs to be allowed on The Commons, a person has to receive a permit from the City of Ithaca’s Department of Public Works. Kathy Servoss, executive assistant to the Superintendent of Public Works and Engineering, said she has neither received any applications nor issued any permits for dogs on the Commons in 2019. 

However, in 2018, four permits were issued and three were issued in 2017. For anyone looking to apply for a permit, according to Servoss, there is an application with a $20 fee, and the owner needs to provide a copy of the license from the City Clerk and something in writing (from employer or lease for apartment) that indicates the animal is allowed on their premises.

With an overall culture shift towards allowing dogs, there have been plenty of discussions regarding how dogs on The Commons would work. During the April meeting of the Public Safety and Information Commission, members discussed how allowing dogs on The Commons would affect the area, revisiting the issue in September, partially focusing on the aforementioned cleanliness issue. 

One concern is that the smell and dirtiness could build-up, even during the course of one day. Another commission member mentioned the idea of installing “piddle pads” along The Commons, which can be cleaned relatively quickly. Though the conversation of having dogs on The Commons will forever remain in limbo as there has been a great deal of indecisiveness from government agencies about how to proceed. 

Regardless, as sure as people love their pets, the debate is sure to continue over the efficacy of inviting dogs downtown. In the recent past, there has been at least one reported incident involving dogs that lend credence to the fears some express over having them in a place that can become quite crowded; the last, as far as we can tell, came in early 2017 when Health Department officials had to quarantine a dog for 10 days (a standard procedure) to ensure it was not rabid after it bit someone on the Commons. Yet there will always be others who feel banning dogs, even if its only a nominal ban, is counter to the spirit of downtown Ithaca. 

“I think it’s counter to the mission of the Commons to be welcoming and inviting to everybody, where we have all these, it’s an outdoor space and the fact that we define it so dramatically different from all the other outdoor space, including the sidewalks that are around the perimeter of The Commons, doesn’t make any sense to me,” Kurzweil said. “I just don’t think you can or should regulate people acting appropriately just because it’s ‘the Commons’ over all the other outdoor space that's around the city.

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