June 3, 2010

Ithaca Common Council allows 10-week extension of temporary bridge fences

A unanimous vote by Ithaca's Common Council June 2 has granted Cornell a 10-week extension on the temporary chain-link fences erected on several bridges in the wake of student suicides this past academic year.

At their regular monthly meeting, Council voted to permit the fences, installed in March following three student deaths, to remain up until Aug. 13 to allow further study of the efficacy of fencing as a suicide deterrent and to possibly work toward the design of more permanent structures.

Council members agreed that the current fences are inappropriately obtrusive to what Ithaca is most known for -- its gorges. Svante Myrick, D-4th, who filed the resolution, said he doubts anyone would argue in favor of the "loss of natural aesthetic beauty."

"I also don't think there is anyone who would not do anything, within reason, to save the lives of people," Myrick said.

The university and the city worked together to put the temporary fences up as an emergency safety measure. On March 26, Mayor Carolyn Peterson exercised authority under municipal code to grant immediate permission to Cornell to install the fences, bypassing the normal review and permitting process. This provision was set to expire June 4.

According to the Council's June 2 resolution, the city has authorized Cornell to continue to maintain the existing fences on the two city-owned Stewart Avenue (across Cascadilla Creek and Fall Creek) and Thurston Avenue bridges, as well as on Cornell-owned bridges.

In the meantime, Cornell officials plan to continue studying so-called "means restriction" -- the idea that such fences could deter the impulse of a potential suicide victim. These plans are detailed in a May 27 letter from Susan Murphy, vice president for student and academic services, to Peterson requesting the extension.

According to Murphy's letter, Cornell will work with city officials in the next 10 weeks to jointly consider and review designs for more "visually acceptable" barriers. The goal is to replace the existing fences by the end of the extension period with a "mutually acceptable temporary alternative." Cornell has also promised to bear all costs associated with the removal of the existing fencing and for the design and installation of interim emergency barriers.

"An extension of the status quo for up to 10 weeks is based on the continuing emergency that our experts and our professional mental health care staff believe exists," the letter states.