Lara Schultz, Realty Executives, SELA, Metairie LA
It started with a kiss – a big slobbery one from the cutest little basset hound. He was out for his twice daily walk along with another 20 or so volunteers and their four-legged friends, forming a single line following a fairly unattractive and uneventful path down a potholed street, turning the corner at the abandoned warehouse and making their way through the overgrown sidewalk. Muddy and mosquito infested even after modest rains, with no grass, no shade and no general direction in which to head out to.
But despite the lack of amenities, he was certainly happy to be here.
Here being Villalobos Rescue Center, home to the country’s largest pit bull sanctuary and New Orleans' newest tourist attraction. During hours of operation and most particularly Saturday mornings, dog lovers from far and near show up at the Center's gates to give an hour or two of their time with the "inmates."
Villialobos’ 33,000 sq. ft. warehouse, home to about 125 rescued dogs, is located at the beginning of a heavily industrialized corner at the foot of the Claiborne Avenue Bridge and Poland Avenue. It sits in the middle of an overgrown city lot on a dead-end street under the bridge at a very busy intersection which heads into the Lower Ninth Ward. It is surrounded by train tracks and the intra-coastal canal.
On a recent Saturday morning, I found myself outside the bead draped gates of the Center waiting for Tia Torres, its’ passionate director. Torres and her dedicated staff work tirelessly to give not just pit bulls, but each and every dog, a second chance. And this passion carries over into other aspects of her life, including making her neighborhood a better place to live and work.
I had recently sold a nearby home to Torres' sons and she wanted to know who owned the blighted lot behind their house. Watching her sons cut through the weedy, trash-strewn vacant lot behind their home to get to the warehouse every day made her want to do something to change it from its’ eyesore status to a neighborhood asset.
After about a 15-minute conversation we came up with the idea of a dog park, specifically for dogs under 40 pounds due to their increasing population at the Center and the lack of similar facilities anywhere else in the City.
With a little bit of research we found that the lot was owned by NORA (the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority) and the vacant property was part of the PitchNOLA: Lots of Progress competition, where people could present their ideas for putting vacant commercial property to use. The contest, held in August 2014, was hosted by the Propeller social entrepreneurship incubator, and grants were provided by Entergy.
We submitted our idea for a dog park, Little Paws Dog Park, and won second place and $2,000.
Using our $2,000, lots of volunteers and with a little help from donors, we’ve turned the lot into a recycled and sustainable park featuring a water pad with a fire hydrant as its centerpiece, a recycled toilet fountain that the dogs can drink from and funny bone-shaped benches donated by local wood artist, John Rowland.
Recycled wood was used for the shade area and for seating and tables, old tires and repurposed metal for the agility course and salvaged bricks for the water areas. Solar lighting will help keep utility expenses low and an innovative compost system will eliminate the need for bio bags and major trash service.
We were fortunate to have the help of the entire neighborhood. They lent us their water, their electricity and came out often to just lend their support. The best part of the experience was watching the neighborhood come together as the project progressed.
With the completion of Little Paws, we are now moving to the second phase of the beautification master plan where we are requesting the unused land under the bridge from the state to let us turn the into a walkway and public park for the larger dogs, the neighborhood, and the volunteers. We think it makes sense to turn the unused state land into green space. We hope the state thinks so too.
Little Paws Dog Park solved a lot of issues for both the Center and the neighborhood. Part of the reason for the dog park is a big thank you to all the incredible volunteers who come out and walk the dogs at the Center The volunteers now have a space that they can spend quality time with the rescued dogs. The dogs have a gated grassy area to run and play. The neighbors have a gathering spot. And the neighborhood has a beautiful much-needed green space anchor.