March 7, 2011

Letter to the Editor: The Jig is Up on the Bridges

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Re: “Bridge Barrier Architect Reports Progress to City, University Officials,” News, Feb. 9; “Presentation of Preliminary Bridge Barrier Designs Still Not Released by Cornell, Ithaca,” News, Feb. 14; “Study Questions Efficacy of Permanent Bridge Barriers,” News, Feb. 26; and “Bridge Architect Argues for Increased Budget,” News, Feb. 25

I surely cannot be the only one following the suicide fence controversy with a growing sense of frustration. First there was the story on Feb. 8 regarding the closed-door presentation of the bridge designs by Nader Tehrani. Did it strike anyone else that Tehrani came across as incredibly condescending to we, the mere mortals of Ithaca and Cornell? Here he was saying there was no need to yet include the public in any discussion of design by saying that this was “the moment to think, to imagine possible designs not necessarily intended for public consumption.” Excuse me if I am mistaken but these designs will be built on public thoroughfares — why would the public be excluded at any point from seeing them?

Then there was the minor debacle as the designs, finally scheduled to be released to the public on Feb. 14, were still not released due to a supposed shortage of Cornell video staff to post it to the website. Bear in mind that we live in a world in which it is possible for any reasonably knowledgeable person to upload digital video footage in a matter of minutes. And yet such basic technical skills are apparently beyond the ken for Cornell’s Public Relations office. And so a cynical person might conclude that both the city and University were stalling for time, knowing that the designs would be unpopular and Tehrani’s high-handed presentation of them even more so.

And then finally at the end of last week came the truly “emperor’s new clothes” moment, when a new study by U.C. Santa Barbara scholar Barrett Glasgow seemed to indicate that the central premise of the “means restriction” fences was, in fact, questionable. Ithaca Superintendent of Public Works Bill Gray deserves particular credit for calling out Tehrani and company for their evasions on this point: “‘We spent a lot of time at the start of all of this saying … that if you can eliminate bridges as a source, as a location, you will have solved a major portion of the problem’ … if the barriers did not significantly reduce an area’s suicide rate, the barriers might not be worth building at all.”

The plain truth seems to be this: Having put the fences up over a year ago, the city and University are stuck. They feel they can never take them down without opening themselves to lawsuits should anyone again ever jump from the bridges. And, as was revealed from the comments of the city council, the supposedly “improved” designs by Tehrani’s various troubled design firms are, in the end, just slightly artsy, very expensive versions of what is already there: chain link fences.

— Jeremy Cusker ’02