Though a large majority of community members at a Common Council meeting Tuesday spoke in favor of Cornell’s proposal to build suicide barriers under the city’s bridges, the issue may ultimately be decided by the ongoing maintenance costs of the project.
After hearing from 41 speakers, including university faculty and community members, the Council said it would wait for more detailed information about the cost of maintenance before proceeding with the construction of the nets underneath three city-owned bridges. While Cornell said it will pay for the construction of the nets, it will expect the city to pay for continued maintenance.
The nets are intended to prevent suicides on bridges on and near campus. The strategy of using physical barriers — known as means restriction — comes in response to a string of three bridge suicides in 2010.
Alderperson Dan Cogan (D-5th Ward) said he has warmed to the idea of means restriction, but will not support the construction of permanent bridge barriers on the city’s bridges unless Cornell picks up the costs of maintenance.
“My predisposition is not to overprotect people, but I can be convinced. However, I can’t be convinced if it’s on city taxpayer’s dime,” he said.
Cornell hopes to expand its means restriction efforts to the three city-owned bridges near campus — the Thurston Avenue bridge and the two bridges on Stewart Avenue. Additionally, construction of barriers on the four University-owned bridges is subject to environmental quality review and site plan review by Ithaca’s Board of Public Works.
University Architect Gilbert Delgado said that Cornell’s offer to construct the barriers would represent a $3 million to $4 million gift to the City of Ithaca. After Cornell revised its initial proposals and presented designs that would not obstruct views, opponents of the project have moved away from focusing on aesthetics and now focus on costs, he said.
“I feel that we did our part, delivered a design that nullified aesthetic argument. What’s left is whether you want to pay for this, and that becomes a different type of discussion,” he said.
After hearing from the Council and the community, Mayor Carolyn Peterson said that she would set up meetings to speak with city agencies and Cornell officials to gain a better sense of the costs of the project and their effect on the city’s tight budget.
“[The cost] is a question we need to answer because this is the most serious budget the city has faced in 50 years,” Peterson said.
Next week, Delgado and other Cornell officials will travel to Bern, Switzerland, to view a similar means restriction system that uses nets under the bridges. They will meet with Swiss authorities to discuss the costs and logistics of the barriers, and they will meet with the suppliers of the netting that will be used under the Ithaca bridges.
Forty-one members of the Ithaca and Cornell community members spoke at the open forum Tuesday, giving their opinions and telling stories of the ways in which their lives have been affected by suicides. The majority of those in attendance expressed support for the nets.
John Mueller ‘13 spoke about his father, who committed suicide two years ago after a struggle with mental illness. Mueller said he found his father dead, his hand still holding a gun. Mueller asked the Council to support the nets on the bridges.
“It was too late for means restriction for my dad,” he said. “It’s too late for the classmates we lost in 2010. It’s too late for me and all those affected by suicide to erase the horrific images that we’ve seen. I ask you, all factors aside, if approving means restriction could save just one person from the loss, pain and utter turmoil caused by suicide, why wouldn’t you?”
A smaller number of speakers questioned the effectiveness of Cornell’s means restriction strategy, arguing that the barriers only drive suicidal individuals to seek other means. However, Cornell officials at the meeting continued to cite research that said means restriction is effective.
Heather Bissel of the organization Ithaca is Fences said that means restriction is a way to drive suicide away from public places.
“Fences are not going to save people; They’ll find another place,” she said. “If that’s what we’re asking people to do, to go home, go to a quiet place, drink antifreeze or find a quiet way to die so we don’t feel uncomfortable, it’s the wrong message.”
One member of the Common Council, Ellen McCollister (D-3rd Ward), who was vacationing in Colorado on Tuesday, stands as a vocal opponent to Cornell’s plan to build the barriers.
“I'm finding it ironic that I'm in Aspen this week, where people dying from hikes and climbs is, while tragic, just part of the landscape. But other than taking reasonable precautions, nobody concludes that we should wall off nature,” she said in an email.
McCollister said that Cornell was not taking a look at the data in a dispassionate manner. She said that data shows that Cornell has a lower than average suicide rate and that the suicides were not a long-term trend.
“Common Council has been deluged the past week with letters from Gannett staff and ‘citizens,’ all part of an orchestrated campaign by Cornell to ensure that they get the outcome they want,” she said in an email. “My personal preference would be to have the barriers eliminated from all the bridges.”