By Jeff Mays
HARLEM — Morningside Park was designed by Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux, the same duo who designed Central Park.
But the park, known for its vistas overlooking Harlem, hasn't always gotten the same respect as its famous cousin, falling into disrepair and developing a reputation for being unsafe. But now that the Parks Department is set to start a two-phase renovation plan for the northern end of the park, residents are hoping that will change.
"We recognize that unlike Central Park we don't have a lot of private funds coming in," said Brad Taylor, a board member and former president of Friends of Morningside Park, a group devoted to park upkeep that tried 11 years ago to start a renovation project. "We can't raise tens of millions of dollars like they do. When it comes to public dollars, we understand these things take time."
The Parks Department was expected to unveil its plans Wednesday night for renovating the northern end of the park from West 121st to West 123rd streets. The changes include renovating the playground, handball courts, basketball courts and water spray area. Entrances and pathways will also be improved along with new plantings.
Taylor said the northern end of the park has a lot of asphalt.
"The overall goal at the north end is to make it more park-like. Now, it has high metal fences and looks like the 1940s recreation center that it is," he said. "Our goal is to make it more park-like and more green and get it closer to the Olmsted design."
Given the park's designation as a historic landmark in 2008, the Parks Department will also have to seek approval from the Landmarks Preservation Commission.
Parks spokesman Philip Abramson said several improvements have taken place at the park over the years. The playground at West 116th Street was renovated in 2006.
New gardens greet visitors to the park at five of its entrances and a rare, 25 foot tall sequoia tree was donated in 2009 by a nursery in Portland, Ore. It sits at West 121st Street with 32 other pine trees. A dog run and a seasonal farmers market now helps draw people to the park.
New development is also sprouting on Morningside Avenue, and Taylor said the park is benefitting from the gentrification of the Frederick Douglass Boulevard corridor.
"The word is getting out there more and more and the landmark process in 2008 helped," said Taylor. "These upcoming changes are going to have a real effect on the people who live near the park. The goal is to have more green space available to the people."