RIVER NORTH — Dog poop remains a big problem in River North, Ald. Brandon Reilly said, and some residents have gotten downright nasty when told to clean up after their pooches.
At a meeting this week in which the 42nd Ward alderman announced plans to revamp the dog-friendly area at Ward Park, 630 N. Erie St., the conversation again turned to the problem of dog waste in the neighborhood — and those who don't pick up after their furry friends.
Reilly — whose website features a picture of his pooch "Buster" and calls Chicago "the dog friendliest city in the U.S. (especially in the 42nd Ward)" — agreed that dog poop had gotten out of hand in parts of his ward.
The alderman recounted a recent incident in which an area resident smeared poop on the shirt of Reilly's chief of staff when she asked the woman to pick up after her dog.
"The dog took a big poop, and this woman was prepared to keep walking," Reilly told the meeting. "And my chief of staff said, 'Excuse me, miss, you've gotta pick that up.' And the woman, I swear to God, walked over, with her bare hands, picked up the poop and smeared it all over my chief of staff's jacket."
He added: "We've got some real turkeys for neighbors who don't know how to treat people. I'd love to blame it all on folks from outside the neighborhood, but we've got turkeys here, too."
Erdem Tuncsiper, former spokesman for the River North Dog Owner's Association, said the entrance to Ward Park that is close to a couple of residential buildings is particularly poopy.
"That's where everybody goes now," he said. "So the area where we have the dead tree over there, it's the first, closest thing. People just walk out, [let their dogs] go to the bathroom. So what you notice in the area of the main part of Montgomery Ward Park is that people just walk in there, let their dogs go. Nobody walks farther than the closest park, ever."
Residents suggested putting out signs to warn dog owners of fines for not cleaning up and keeping dogs on leashes, and Reilly noted that police could warn people about the issue, although "I'm not eager to have police aggressively targeting dog owners."
And he promised to put out more dispensers of free poop bags near parks.
"I'm gonna deliver on that, you can count on that," Reilly said.
Reilly said he hopes the situation at Ward Park doesn't become as bad as what's happened at Fulton River Park at 600 W. Kinzie St., where the poop led to the cancellation of some movie screenings.
"I mean literally, it's ruined," he said of that park. "It's rendered that park virtually useless. And that's another neighborhood just like this one, lots of young families, lots of kids. They try to do movies in the park, and it's a minefield."
The dog waste issue came up at a meeting to discuss improvements to the dog-friendly area in the northwest corner of Ward Park. Reilly said it will be revamped this spring, with new trees and more paw-friendly surfaces, making it the second-largest dog park in the city behind Montrose Beach.
If construction starts by next April as planned, the park could open as early as May, said Bob Foster, a Chicago Park District spokesman.
Reilly has been working with the River North Residents' Association and the dog owners' association for six years to find a way to fund renovations. Early on, residents were expected to raise funds independently for the project.
This year, Reilly secured TIF money to cover the cost of upgrading the park, which takes the burden off residents, but forces the construction timeline to be significantly expedited.
"I have to get the funding voted and approved next month, and then we've got to spend it before the end of the year," Reilly said. "So for these guys to get the bidding process, get all this stuff going, and deliver something to us in the spring, we're kind of on a tight timeline."
Amid questions from residents about using different materials, widening the park's boundaries and creating a separate area for smaller dogs, Reilly emphasized that tight budget constraints were the trade-off for getting work done quickly.
Reilly said they will not be able to create separate areas for small and large dogs at the park, which was requested by some residents. Reilly — who said he understands the need because he owns two Yorkshire terriers — said dividing the Ward Park dog-friendly area would be "like having a one-bedroom apartment and deciding to turn it into a two-bedroom. Suddenly you've got two walk-in closets and no bedroom."
As an alternative, Reilly said he would work with the Chicago Department of Transportation to develop a fenced-in area exclusively for small dogs at the nearby Ohio Street dog park.
For that project, Reilly offered to use his "menu money" allocated to each ward from the city's Capital Improvement Program.
The Ward Park dog-friendly area renovations include replacing the asphalt with a protective tan covering that's gentler on dogs' paws and stays cooler, a water fountain with a dog's-height bowl and a nozzle for hoses and new trees.
Once the improvements are made, Reilly hopes dog owners will use it — and not continue to use other parts of the park.
"If we're gonna deliver this new infrastructure which we can improve over time, let's really browbeat our dog owner friends: Stay out of the people park," he said.