Our story begins on the site of the former Meadowbrook School, located near the intersection of Hampton Blvd. and West Little Creek Rd.
When the school closed in 2009, the fenced recreational field remained open to the Meadowbrook neighborhood and surrounding communities. At nearly 3 acres, with basketball courts, playground equipment, park benches, and an expansive green space, the field became host to a huge amount of daily recreation and was swiftly transformed into an unofficial dog park. On nice days, there would be twenty or more dogs romping around (with their humans) for much of the early morning and late afternoon, but there were dogs present at almost every hour of the day. The city was aware of the park. Norfolk Animal Control would stop by occasionally to chat and admire some of the beautiful dogs, but the park was peaceful and neighbors took responsibility for maintaining and preserving the space, so they otherwise left us alone.
A diverse community came to life in this space as residents from Meadowbrook and surrounding neighborhoods formed relationships, learned about one another’s lives, and watched one another’s dogs grow and play. We supported one another through life’s joys and challenges, both canine and human—births, puppy adoptions, graduations (from schools, colleges, and obedience classes), illnesses, deaths. We celebrated holidays, welcomed new residents, and bid farewell to those who moved away. Our dogs, Willa and Zoey, literally grew up in that park. We both live only a few blocks away and we would take our dogs there every day and sometimes twice, rain or shine, for eight years. There was a crew of regulars who did the same: Della, Bucky, Bear, Abby, Vince, Lilly, Hooper, Zeus—many of us knew one another only by our dogs’ names. Hundreds of people used the site to exercise and socialize their canine companions, and many of us became good friends while watching our pups play. The park was a big part of many peoples’ lives. Through it we developed an appreciation for how public spaces can serve as big mixing bowls where people of very different backgrounds can meet each other, share some treats, and develop a common bond.
Four years ago, without letting our neighborhood know, the City of Norfolk called for proposals from developers to buy and build housing complexes on the school site. The Meadowbrook Civic League became aware of the request for proposals and reminded the city that we wanted to be consulted when it came to deciding what was going to be built in the middle of our small neighborhood (something that Mayor Paul Fraim had promised in writing several years prior). We were told, in so many words, to mind our own business. The City was forcing an unwanted project onto a neighborhood without asking for advice or consent. Two stories appeared in the Virginian Pilot, and we received favorable local television news coverage. The Civic League board worked tirelessly to stop the selling of the land to developers whose plans would have been completely inappropriate in such a small neighborhood. After a contentious series of meetings, telephone calls, and negotiations with an ever-changing assortment of city officials, the Civic League successfully blocked development plans for a nearly 100 apartment project and arrived at a compromise with the city: we would accept a new fire station (to replace the 100-year-old Station 12), a park, and some type of housing development, each to occupy about 1/3 of the site. In the end, and after local election cycles brought in a wave of new leadership, we received more than we asked. The new fire station is nearly done and only occupies about 1/3 of the site. The rest of the empty field (the school was demolished in 2016) has been designated as a city park.
As these events were unfolding, the community was also working to try to preserve our perfectly functional dog park as part of the new designated green space. Those of us who had used the place for years couldn’t bear the thought of losing our favorite spot. Many messages were exchanged with city council members and with the city manager’s office. That effort was ultimately successful, but not in the way we had intended. The city refused to reuse any of the existing fencing that bordered the field and stood firm on their policy of having users fund their own dog parks. We succeeded in getting both the civic league and the city to approve the existence of a new one acre dog park within the larger park, but this remained contingent on our willingness to pay for the fence and then take responsibility for operating the park. We learned the fence would cost $26,500. In mid-October, 2017, the city set a deadline of December 22, 2017 for us to raise that amount, giving us little more than two months to reach our initial target.
In short order, the Meadowbrook Dog Park Association was established to raise funds for the fence and then supervise the park once built. The fundraising has been underway for well over a month, and after much uncertainty we are now very close to reaching our target. We have received several very generous donations from within the neighborhood, from folks who don’t live here but were regular users of the dog park, and from local pet-oriented businesses, such as Muddy Paws and Friendship Veterinary Hospital. We received a matching grant of $5000 from Dr. Charles and Mary Beth Horton, who along with their dogs Denver and Jackson, had been longtime members of our little community. We applied to the IRS for 501(c)(3) non-profit status so that donations to the park would be deductible on federal tax returns. The status was granted and, as of today (Dec. 1, 2017), we have raised almost $20,000. We are hopeful about reaching our goal, and we will continue to raise funds for maintenance and improvements as required by Norfolk’s rules.
The new fire station is nearly done and the park is scheduled to be built early in 2018. Our unofficial dog park community was temporarily disrupted when the recreation field was locked up and handed over to the contractor to begin construction. But we were brought back together through our commitment to raising the money to re-build something that resembles the park we once enjoyed. We have learned how to do this on the fly, through grassroots organizing and word of mouth. It has been a long, multi-year effort on the part of a dedicated group of neighbors and pet-lovers, and it’s provided a great lesson on how people can make a difference in their communities, foster quality of life, and support public green spaces. We are still working out many of the details (how to recognize donors, which amenities to purchase for the park, how to organize and pay for maintenance after it’s built, etc.), but we remain committed to building a wonderful dog park to serve everyone on this side of Norfolk. All two-legged and four-legged visitors will be welcome!
John Domena, President
The Meadowbrook Dog Park Association
Dana Heller. Member
The Meadowbrook Dog Park Association