Sunday, 20 Jun 2021

The Vessel, a Tourist Draw, to Reopen With Changes After Several Deaths

The Vessel, the labyrinth of staircases at Hudson Yards that closed four months ago after several people killed themselves there, will reopen on Friday with measures in place designed to reduce the risk of suicides.

But the Related Companies, the developer of Hudson Yards, said it would not raise the height of barriers along the sculpture’s walkways, a change that a local community board had been pushing for and that research has shown would be an effective deterrent.

Instead, security will be tripled, and visitors will no longer be allowed to hike up the steps of the Vessel alone. Those who wish to climb the 150-foot spiraling sculpture’s tangle of interlocking stairs will be required to enter in pairs or groups.

Staff will also be trained to watch for behavior that might indicate a person is considering self-harm, a spokesman for Hudson Yards said. Tickets — which were previously free but now will generally cost $10 — and signs will carry messages discouraging suicides.

Lowell D. Kern, the chairman of Community Board 4, which covers the area, said that while any changes were welcome, the board was disappointed that developers did not go further.

“We don’t think this is good enough,” Mr. Kern said. “The only way to prevent future tragedies is to raise the height of the barriers.”

Since the Vessel opened in 2019, three people have died after jumping from the structure, a cyclone of copper-clad walkways that sits at the center of Hudson Yards on Manhattan’s Far West Side.

If you are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK) or go to SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for a list of additional resources. Here’s what you can do when a loved one is severely depressed.

The sculpture, designed by Thomas Heatherwick and Heatherwick Studio, is an imposing honeycomb whose 154 interconnecting flights of stairs and 80 landings lured tourists attracted by the physical challenge and the views of New York City and the Hudson River.

The Vessel was widely viewed as the centerpiece of Hudson Yards, a $25 billion project that was the largest mixed-use private development in U.S. history. Though the structure was maligned as an eyesore by architecture critics, some city residents and at least one Emmy-nominated television series, visitors didn’t object: Thousands flocked there each day before the pandemic brought tourism to a halt.

But the developers closed the Vessel to the public in January after two people killed themselves there in the preceding month. The third suicide had taken place less than a year earlier. All three victims were young adults, all of whom came to the Vessel alone, officials said.

City residents and critics had raised concerns that the Vessel’s design could pose safety risks well before it closed. Barriers along the staircases are waist-high, and in 2016, Audrey Wachs, a former associate editor of The Architect’s Newspaper, warned that “when you build high, folks will jump.” Mr. Kern said the community board urged Related Companies to make design changes after the first suicide.

After closing the Vessel in January, the Related Companies consulted for months with suicide-prevention experts, security experts and some local politicians about ways it could limit further suicides at the site, a spokesman said, declining to provide further details.

Visitors to the Vessel will generally be required to purchase tickets in advance, though entry during the first hour of the day will remain free. Proceeds will be used to pay for the added security.

On the back of the tickets, a message developed with Born This Way Foundation, a nonprofit organization created by the singer Lady Gaga that offers mental health resources, will remind visitors that “each of you matter to us, and to so many others.”

A sign at the entrance to the structure will provide information about the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Those who try to enter alone will be turned away, though group tours will be available to connect people who are visiting solo.

Barbara Stanley, a professor in Columbia University’s psychiatry department who has studied suicide prevention, said that the Vessel’s policy requiring guests to be accompanied could be helpful. Having a supportive friend or relative to turn to can help people grapple with and recover from suicidal thoughts, she said.

But Dr. Stanley also said that adding to or raising the physical barriers at the Vessel would probably be the most effective way to decrease suicides there.

“If they really wanted to prevent suicide, that would be the best way to do it,” she said. “That’s the long and the short of it.”

Studies have shown that fencing and barriers can be effective at stopping or reducing suicide attempts. In the New York area, suicides and attempted suicides both decreased at the George Washington Bridge after an 11-foot-high fence and netting were installed in 2017. New York University installed barriers around the atrium at one of its libraries in 2012 after a number of suicides there.

A spokesman for Related would not comment on whether barriers were considered but said that the company believed its changes would make the Vessel safer while staying true to the intent of its design.

Mr. Kern, of the community board, said that he believed Related’s decision to leave the barriers in place may have been an aesthetic one. (Heatherwick Studio referred a request for comment to Related.)

“I understand that the Vessel is seen as a work of art and architecture, and there’s a certain aesthetic involved with that,” he said. “But you’re trying to balance an artistic aesthetic versus loss of life, and there’s no choice there.”

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