With 270 luxe new rental units towering over Lake Street, the Vantage building is drawing a chic and spendy class of dweller to downtown Oak Park. It’s also bringing their dogs. And these dogs are ravaging Austin Gardens.

It’s a shame and it’s an outrage and it’s an issue that Oak Park is going to continue facing as the residential density of the Lake Street corridor mushrooms, with high-rise developments beckoning city folk to urban suburbia. Another would-be tower is in the proposal stages right across the street from Vantage, on the southeastern edge of Oak Park’s premiere nature park.

No one walking through Austin Gardens this winter can have missed the ugly divot field on the east side of the preserve. A closer look at the damage reveals dog prints of the sort made when animals are running free and hauling ass, tearing after a ball, after one another, after their own noses.

Likewise, no one walking through the park can help noticing the mounds of dog crap left behind for others to admire and perhaps clean up.

As a Metra commuter who has strolled through Austin Gardens every weekday morning for several years, I can offer anecdotal evidence that this winter is different than last — it’s much, much worse. One big difference is that Vantage is now open and partially occupied. Almost every morning I see building residents airing their dogs in Austin Gardens. After all, it’s right out the front door.

Vantage has actively marketed the building to dog owners. The building allows two dogs per unit, each animal up to 65 pounds, and its rental website also advertises a pet washing station for owners who need to hose down Marmaduke.

Yet while they’ve courted dog owners — and the pet fees they’re willing to pay — Vantage management does not appear to have well communicated the rules for walking dogs in neighboring Austin Gardens. Or the expectations for maintaining a unique civic jewel.

“We all need to be good neighbors,” Park District of Oak Park Executive Director Jan Arnold said during a recent phone interview. She acknowledged off-leash dogs are a problem in Austin Gardens — and elsewhere in Oak Park — and said the park district has sought increased patrolling and ticketing by police.

“We request that people be good stewards of all of our properties,” Arnold said. “Everyone has a right to our parks [but] having a dog on a leash is a responsible dog owners’ thing to do. Cleaning up after them is also a responsible dog owners’ responsibility.”

A call to Vantage seeking comment was referred to a marketing staffer who did not return a voicemail message. A police department official confirmed officers last month increased patrols at Austin Gardens in response to complaints about off-leash dogs in the park. That official encouraged residents to call police at 708-386-2131 when they witness violations of the village’s leash laws.

Arnold is herself a dog owner and said park officials have provided Vantage management with fliers regarding park district leash rules. But she acknowledged Austin Gardens is an attractive ersatz dog run because it is fully fenced. Arnold pointed out that the village maintains dedicated dog parks at Ridgeland Common and Maple Park and the Cook County Forest Preserve District operates a large dog area near 1st Avenue and Roosevelt Road.

But, of course, those facilities aren’t as convenient as Austin Gardens.

Surely the charms of Austin Gardens were not lost on the developers who built the Vantage property or to the people who’ve moved into the building. Nor are those charms absent from the marketing strategies of all these downtown development projects.

So why foul this singular and special little 3.6-acre gem?

That’s a question for my new neighbors, peering down from behind those blue-green Vantage windows:

Did you really move here to make Oak Park an uglier place?

And to my older neighbors and to village officials responsible for managing growth while retaining the deep community infrastructure that makes this high-tax town attractive and vibrant:

Are we willing to settle for a degraded and abused Austin Gardens?

Brett McNeil is an Oak Park writer who works in the Loop. He and his wife live near Scoville Park.

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