City is hoping suicide rate goes down
By Gus Herrera
Following weeks of tense public opposition, the Desiderio Neighborhood Park project will proceed as planned after Councilmember Steve Madison was unable to rally five votes from his colleagues to re-agendize the matter for design review. The District 6 representative, who called for the vote on Aug. 27 when dozens of protesters and local media packed the council chambers, fell just one vote shy at council’s latest meeting – the request to reconsider the park design was unable to pass by a count of 4-4.
Councilmembers Victor Gordo, Gene Masuda, and Andy Wilson supported Madison’s motion, while Councilmembers Margaret McAustin, Tyron Hampton, Vice-Mayor John Kennedy, and Mayor Terry Tornek all voted in opposition.
Despite the fact that the item was intended to be a simple call-up vote and was not slated for a full-blown discussion, council’s deliberation, which included lengthy public testimony from several unsettled residents, ran close to two hours.
As has become evident over the past few months, the Desiderio Park issue was far from a simple matter – what began as a controversy regarding the location of a proposed restroom grew into a larger case of public safety when residents began to question the city’s decision to place a children’s play space underneath the Colorado Street Bridge.
“Tonight, the question is, can I beg, borrow, and steal the votes of four of my colleagues to join me,” began Madison, “there are clearly enough substantial issues here that make it more than reasonable for us to take another look … we find ourselves with a design that places a tot lot and a parking lot right in the direct danger zone of those suicides … I respectfully ask my colleagues to join me.”
Unfortunately, Madison was unable to convince four of his fellow council members, who each voiced a strong opinion as to why additional review was unnecessary.
Councilmember Tyron Hampton was concerned with the consequences of terminating a construction contract which was already underway.
Ara Maloyan, director of public works, revealed that there was a possibility to negotiate termination with the contractor, but the action would cost the city anywhere between $200,000 to $1.3 million.
When Hampton asked how many similar projects have been “stopped mid-stream,” City Manager Steve Mermell replied, “I’m hard-pressed to think of any off the top of my head … this would be a-typical.”
Vice-Mayor John Kennedy similarly argued that it would be “irresponsible” to “stop a contract that’s already been awarded where significant work has been done,” fearing that “council could be subjecting the city to some liability.”
He also reminded his colleagues of the various times the project had already been approved and modified (including council’s recent July decision to re-locate the proposed restroom) and doubted whether council would ever be able to achieve a perfect solution.
“I don’t think anything that the council will do … will be totally satisfactory … we have not fashioned a perfect remedy to the concerns that have been raised,” he said, “I think Mr. Madison’s heart is in the right place in terms of listening to the residents, I just think the outcome is also one that the council is supportive of and has already spoken on.”
Mayor Terry Tornek voted against Madison’s motion for similar reasons, arguing that the issue had already gone through a “thoughtful process” involving four different commissions.
The mayor also urged his colleagues not to conflate the suicide issue with that of the park and assured residents that the city will solve the Colorado Street Bridge problem regardless of what happens with the space below.
“One way or another we will have a solution to that problem, because we must,” he said.
Councilmember McAustin was also satisfied with the process and reminded her colleagues that the existing approval does allow for “further refinements.”
“This has been through the meat grinder,” she said, “there’s still a little room for things to be adjusted, but I support the project, I support the bathroom, and I don’t support the call-up.”
With respect to the Colorado Street Bridge situation, the city has ordered the installation of 10-foot-tall emergency fencing along the entire length of the bridge after a 14-hour standoff between a would-be jumper and first responders on Sept. 2. This was just the most recent incident in a greater, more alarming trend – after averaging three suicides per year, between 2007 and 2016, the number tripled to nine suicides in 2017 and there have been four suicides to date in 2018, with the most recent on Aug. 27, according to city staff’s report.
The purchase order for the emergency fencing totals $295,932 and work is expected to be completed no later than Sept. 27.
As far as a permanent solution goes, council’s suicide prevention measures, which were approved unanimously on April 23, are still far from a reality – the environmental/design phase of the project will not begin until FY2019 and construction of the final installation will follow in FY2021, per staff’s report.
The price tag for these permanent measures is yet to be determined, but when Councilmember Gene Masuda inquired at the April 23 meeting, Maloyan revealed that staff will seek approximately $400,000 for the initial design/environmental phase and, if the original concrete railing needs modification, the price could range anywhere between $2 and $4 million.
Maloyan said he hoped that the price will fall in the range of $2.5 million but urged council not to hold him to any initial estimates as the project must still undergo a lengthy vetting process, including collaboration with the community and relevant stakeholders.