HARLEM — During the day Montefiore Park, located next to the 137th Street subway stop on Broadway, is mostly used a corridor for City College students heading to campus. At night, the park and dimly lit side street becomes a stomping grounds for the homeless, marijuana smokers, beer-drinkers and their waste.
"The smell of urination is so powerful that it is not serving the community as a park, a place of peaceable enjoyment for people that want to enjoy nature," said Barbara Nikonorow, one of the leaders of the Montefiore Park Neighborhood Association.
All of the grass is surrounded by gates and senior citizens bring their own chairs to the park.
But the Hamilton Heights park wasn't always an afterthought. The park was created in 1906 and named after Sir Moses Haim Montefiore, a wealthy Italian-Jewish businessman turned Jewish advocate. Before the city removed all the benches and put gates around the grass to deter drug activity, old-timers remember people playing dominoes at the park and parents with kids in tow chatting there.
"It was an important part of daily life before the whole neighborhood went into a state of disrepair and depression with the onslaught of the crack epidemic," said Micheal Palma, a co-leader of the Montefiore Park Neighborhood Association, which his mother founded.
"Now, it's like a zoo for grass. You can look at the grass from behind the gates but you can't use or touch it," he said.
But in 2008, the park, bounded by Broadway and Hamilton Place from West 136th to West 138th Streets, was placed in the Department of Transportation's Plaza Program and designated for a redesign. By closing Hamilton Place from 136th to 138th streets, the size of the park will be doubled.
The $6.4 million project is scheduled to begin construction in 2014 and be completed in 2015.
In advance of the changes, the Montefiore Park Neighborhood Association is hosting a series of visioning workshops.
Starting Saturday, they will host events where Hamilton Place is closed to give the public a sense of the change to come. A monthly cleanup session will be combined with turning Hamilton Place into a play street. A farmer's market launched at the park in July and runs every Tuesday through to November.
Palma said the group is being proactive in an effort to make sure their wishes for redesigning the park are incorporated. Heritage Health and Housing, the Harlem Community Development Corporation and City College's Architectural Center are also partners in the effort.
"What we are trying to do is do is demonstrate to the DOT and Parks Department that this is a big deal to the community. We have definititive ideas. We don't want to see speckled sand and some tables and then say: 'We are finished.' We want to totally redesign the park," Palma said.
At a meeting Wednesday, area residents and business owners endorsed the idea of closing the two block stretch of Hamilton Place twice per week, said Thomas Lunke, director of planning and development for the Harlem Community Development Corporation.
Residents said they want to see festivals return to the park, along with street games such as dominoes and chess tables. They also want the park to be used for fitness, and also for food vendors and vegetable sellers to occupy the expanded space.
Palma also said they wanted more social services directed to help some of the homeless and drug-using population that currently occupies the area.
"We want to make it more of a community living room rather than a passageway for students going to City College. We want it to be a place where the community can engage one another," said Lunke.
Other benefits would include a smoother traffic pattern along Broadway and Hamilton Place, which is closed off after 138th Street because the rest of the short street is one-way running south.