She Had a Genius Idea: Air-Conditioned Doghouses. Then the City Showed Up.
Version 1 of 3.
HASTINGS-ON-HUDSON, N.Y. — No one was in the doghouse, not even Quigley and Snowflake, two Pomeranians on a car trip with their owners, Alan Ruta and Jennifer Wright of Cambridge, N.Y.
Quigley and Snowflake sniffed the doghouse — actually, there are two large, cream-colored doghouses next to the front doors of the Ardsley rest stop on the New York State Thruway, and they checked out both.
As Quigley noticed — or was it Snowflake? — these are not conventional doghouses. They are made not of wood but of powder-coated aluminum. They are air-conditioned. They have internet connectivity, although that is for owners to pay 30 cents a minute so the dogs can lounge inside, not for the dogs to watch cat videos or anything. The idea is to park man’s best friends in a comfortable place while their owners go where they cannot — into the rest-stop building, with the usual “no pets allowed” signs on the doors.
These are, um, the dog days of summer. A dog cannot be left in a car. Some people do, and also leave the engine running and the air-conditioning on (and maybe worry that Rover would slide behind the wheel and drive off, as in the Walt Disney comedy “The Shaggy Dog”). But mostly, there is the question: What’s a dog owner to do?
The doghouses, called DogSpots, are Chelsea Brownridge’s answer. She is a 33-year-old nonprofit executive-turned-entrepreneur from Brooklyn who owns a terrier named Winston. And, four years after she dreamed up the idea of putting “pet sanctuaries” in public places, the doghouses now figure in an improbable bureaucratic back story: Ms. Brownridge’s start-up was nursed along by one New York City agency, only to be all but shut out by another.
“I think this gets down to the right hand wasn’t talking to the left hand,” Ms. Brownridge said. “New York City’s government is large, and they’re obviously dealing with a lot of moving parts.”
But that is not all. As often happens in New York, the ways of the city differ from the ways of the state. So something can be banned by the city in Brooklyn but thrive on the Thruway with the state’s imprimatur.
Ms. Brownridge’s inspiration came after she mapped out a Saturday with a friend. They decided to meet at a cafe in Crown Heights and spend the rest of the day walking around.
She realized that Winston, her terrier, would have to stay at home because of the cafe stop, even though placing their order and paying for it would probably take no more than 15 minutes. Health Department regulations being what they are, Winston would not be welcome in the cafe, and Ms. Brownridge did not want to leave him outside. “I remember thinking, for 15 minutes, I’d pay for someone to make sure he was safe,” she said. (Winston’s timing, or training, is impeccable. He barked just as she finished that sentence.)
She soon organized a company that would license doghouses to retail businesses where dogs are not allowed. Ms. Brownridge said seed came from money from the city’s Economic Development Corporation and the Brooklyn Public Library. She built the first doghouse in a garage across the street from the apartment she lived in at the time in Bedford-Stuyvesant.
She said that when she was ready for more than one-at-a-time prototypes, city officials pointed her to Boyce Technologies, a Long Island City company that manufactures the Help Point towers in the subways, among other products. In 2016 and 2017, her company made arrangements with grocery stores, food courts and what she called “places people go every day where they can’t take their dogs” and placed doghouses around Brooklyn. They have heated floors for cold weather and ultraviolet lights to kill germs other dogs might leave behind. There is also an app that can connect an owner to a live video camera in the doghouse.
She said the mayor’s Office of Technology and Innovation invited her company to attend the Smart City Expo World Congress 2017 in Barcelona, a gathering that attracted 675 exhibitors and more than 400 speakers. One of the keynote speakers at this year’s conference will be Janette Sadik-Khan, who was the transportation commissioner when Michael R. Bloomberg was mayor — the top official at the agency that, forced Ms. Brownridge’s doghouses out of Brooklyn.
The department she used to run, the city’s Transportation Department, rules the sidewalks because they are considered public rights of way. And in November, while Ms. Brownridge was at the Smart City gathering at the city’s invitation, the Transportation Department sent her a cease-and-desist letter that took issue with the very thing she was in Barcelona promoting. “Please be advised that you do not have permission or authorization” to install the doghouses on sidewalks, the letter said before telling her to remove them or else “we will take all appropriate legal actions including removal of the structures.”
Ms. Brownridge said dryly that, considering where she was when she heard about the letter, “This was extremely ironic.” She added that the letter “didn’t spell out what rules we were in violation of.”
Two months later, after emails and a couple of meetings, the Transportation Department sent a second cease-and-desist letter. It said the agency had inspected more than 30 sidewalk locations where doghouses were installed and found that all but two were on public property, and were illegal. (The two were apparently on private property.)
Ms. Brownridge said she and her staff of 10 had gone into the project with their eyes open. “We weren’t under any illusion that putting something on sidewalks wasn’t quite complicated,” she said, adding that her team had attempted to reach Transportation Department officials, she said for “answers and clarity.”
“I think them not giving us that clarity was because they were busy and didn’t know what to do with us,” she said.
Transportation officials agree with that point: The doghouses did not fit any of the usual categories for things people want to put on sidewalks.
That conclusion led the officials to a second: Without a change in the city’s administrative code, the doghouses would never be legal.
The cease-and-desist letter did not faze Ms. Brownridge, who went ahead with plans to expand the company, negotiating to place DogSpots in other cities and making the arrangements with the New York State Thruway Authority and HMSHost, the food-service company that runs 10 rest stops on the Thruway.
The Thruway Authority categorized the doghouses as a “vending amenity,” which is allowed under the agency’s contract with HMSHost. Jonathan Dougherty, a spokesman for the Thruway Authority, said, more than once, that no money from taxes or tolls had gone into putting the DogSpots where they are. He also said he has a 10-year-old Shetland sheepdog named Sadie, and while he has not used one yet, “The DogSpots will come in handy on our many road trips.”
The DogSpots got mixed reviews from passers-by here the other day. Ruth Hansen, a physical therapist at Mercy College in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., said she did not know if her 6-year-old husky, Apollo, would go into a Dog Spot if he were traveling with her. “He has a crate — that’s his home,” she said. “We bought him a doghouse. He wouldn’t go in.”
Mr. Ruta, with Quigley and Snowflake, questioned the price, saying 30 cents a minute was “a lot.” (It is 50 percent more than the price in Brooklyn.)
“I thought they were doing it as a service,” he said.
Ms. Wright said she doubted Snowflake would “like it in there.”
“You know, separation anxiety,” she said. Also, Ms. Wright said, “I think she’d feel trapped.”
Back in Brooklyn, City Councilman Rafael L. Espinal Jr. has introduced a bill that would permit “pet harbors,” a term intended to include DogSpots. Erika Tannor, an aide to Mr. Espinal, compared Ms. Brownridge’s doghouses to coin-operated children’s rides outside stores.
“How is this dog harbor different from any one of those?” Ms. Tannor said, adding that a dog harbor takes up about the same sidewalk space.
Ms. Tannor also described what happened during a news conference that Mr. Espinal called in support of the dog houses during the winter. A couple of dogs wandered by — “not the owner of the company’s dog, random dogs,” Ms. Tannor said.
“One went directly in and sat down,” she said. “It was the cutest thing. It seemed like a place that she wanted to be. And it’s much more humane than having a dog tied on the street where people can steal it. In the Bronx, right after we did our press conference, a little girl went into the supermarket, and they tied their dog up outside before they went in, and somebody stole the dog.”