Vista Bridge neighbors say fences were a bad idea, consider other solutions

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PORTLAND — Neighbors who oppose the fences lining Vista Bridge had one thing to say to city officials Thursday: we told you so.

The city installed 9-foot-high suicide-prevention fences on both sides of the historic Vista Bridge in Southwest Portland in August. Since then two people have gone around or over the fencing and threatened to jump, though both came down unharmed.

On Wednesday, police had to cut a hole in the barrier to either provide a way for a suicidal man to get off the edge - which he did not use - or physically intervene if he attempted to jump.

“It’s kind of like, ‘We told you so, and you didn’t listen,’” said Jerry Powell, a resident of the Goose Hollow neighborhood.

The installation of the chain-link fences, a $236,000 temporary solution intended to last five years, was controversial. Residents expressed their support for suicide-prevention measures to City Commissioner Steve Novick, who runs the city’s transportation bureau, at a meeting in July. Two months later, neighbors railed against Novick for hastily pushing the temporary fences through and ruining, they said, the view and look of the bridge. They suggested alternatives like nets or an alarm system.

Had the city moved more slowly and engaged with the neighborhoods, Powell said, the result likely would have looked better and been more effective. The barriers clearly aren’t enough to stop would-be jumpers, he said, and the money could have been put toward a solution that works.

Concerned neighbors have appointed a committee of seven - four of whom are architects - to look at better options, said Bill Failing, a Southwest Hills resident and co-organizer of the committee.

“The purpose is to find an aesthetic solution to replace the temporarily blight that right now is allegedly protecting the bridge from suicides,” Failing said.

Novick has met with the committee and agreed to work with them, Failing said.

Christa Moe doesn’t live in the neighborhoods surrounding Vista Bridge, but she knows them well. Moe cleans a number of homes in the area. The families that live there come from old money, she said, and take almost a sacred ownership of the land and its history.

Nevertheless, she said, it’s self-centered to value protecting a bridge more than efforts to save lives - no matter how ugly. The barriers may not be perfect, she said, but they were an attempt to prevent suicide at the bridge as quickly as possible. Plus, she said, getting around the fence takes time - time that might make all the difference.

Eventually, she said, she’d like to see a permanent solution that fits the character of the neighborhood, such as an ornate wrought iron fence.

Outcry for suicide barriers began with Kenneth and Bonnie Kahn early this year. They work at the bottom of the bridge and had seen - and heard - bodies hit the ground outside.

The Kahn’s had seen seven suicides in seven years. But five people have leapt from the bridge this year alone, and Powell suspects the increase resulted from publicity associated with their outcry and advocacy.

The question facing the city and residents alike is what to do now.

Novick’s chief of staff, Chris Warner, said the commissioner has talked with police since the incident Wednesday but will sit down with them in a week or so for a full debrief and to discuss future plans.

Sgt. Pete Simpson, a police spokesman, said installing a locked gate that would allow public safety personnel to get to individuals on the other side of the fence might prevent another debacle like police faced this week.

“Sometimes through crisis you discover opportunities,” Simpson said.