Aug. 5, 2010

Ithaca lets temporary bridge barriers remain, for now

Ithaca officials moved to help prevent suicides Aug. 4 by allowing fences to remain temporarily on gorge bridges.

Ithaca's Common Council unanimously granted a further extension of an emergency measure that will enable Cornell University, at its sole cost, to install more visually appealing temporary bridge barriers as the university and the city work to find an acceptable long-term solution.

"We're not voting on a final product here," said Deborah Mohlenhoff, D-5th Ward, prior to the vote. "We're just voting for time."

"We are very grateful to Mayor Carolyn Peterson and Common Council for their willingness to let us maintain barriers on the gorge bridges while we work together to explore permanent solutions," said Cornell Vice President for Student and Academic Services Susan Murphy.

Cornell's immediate plan is to replace the temporary chain-link fences with barriers that have less of a visual impact and include portholes for viewing and photographing the scenery.

"We expect to install the new fencing before the majority of students return to campus for the fall semester," Murphy said.

In the coming months, the city and Cornell will consider schematic designs and narrow down the options for possible permanent "means restriction" to replace the temporary fences. Means restriction is not limited to fences or other barriers, but can include under-bridge nets or other designs. Cornell must propose means restriction designs by May 31, 2011, or take down the temporary fences on the bridges.

A cluster of suicides took place during the 2009-10 academic year, three of which involved students jumping from East Hill bridges within a month. The emergency prompted university officials to ask Peterson to make an emergency declaration. That enabled the university to install temporary chain-link fences this past spring, bypassing the normal project review and permitting process. On June 2, Common Council extended the emergency period until Aug. 10.

On July 16, Common Council held a special meeting for the community to hear presentations from a working group consisting of representatives from Cornell and the city. The group has been discussing the aesthetics and effectiveness of bridge fences. Members of the public as well as representatives of mental health and suicide prevention organizations expressed their views about the temporary fences on the bridges.