Ellen McCollister. (Courtesy of her Facebook page.)

Ithaca, N.Y. — In 2010, a sudden string of suicides at Cornell led the university to erect chain-link fences on several campus and city bridges.


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The 21st Century Library Campaign — Tompkins County Public Library

It looked like the fences, which some saw as an aesthetic blight and a depressing reminder of tragedy, could be there to stay.

That’s about the time that Ellen McCollister — a member of Ithaca’s Common Council who announced today she would not be running for re-election — began studying the issue.

“There had to be a permanent solution,” McCollister recalled in an interview on Thursday.

“I got very involved in reading about suicide literature and root causes, and advocated to beef up Gannett’s Mental Health Services and deal with binge drinking. It had to be a holistic approach.”

Ellen McCollister. (Courtesy of her Facebook page.)

Years down the line, the fences are gone. Now, nets that do far less to obstruct views rest under the bridges — the result of a compromise reached between Cornell and, with McCollister’s involvement, the city of Ithaca.

“I don’t think I was very popular with Cornell then,” said McCollister, who represents Ithaca’s 3rd Ward and is a graduate of the university. “But I don’t think I’ve ever been very popular with Cornell.”

McCollister leaving Council

McCollister’s term will expire at the end of this year. It’ll mark the sixth consecutive year she’s been involved in some of Ithaca’s most important public policy debates.

“I love Council, but I don’t want to do another four years,” McCollister says. “It’s sort of, ‘How many fights do you have left in you?’”

McCollister says she’s been active in civic life in Ithaca for the 30 years she has lived here, including a stint on Ithaca’s planning board. McCollister, who is married to Cornell Economics Professor Robert H. Frank, noted that she will soon turn 60.

“I’ve always been civically engaged and never had an agenda to use office as a stepping stone to do something else,” she says. “I have a Pollyanna-like belief in public service, but you can’t do it forever.”

She said she’s not sure what she plans on doing next. “I’m there through December — and then, who knows?,” McCollister says. “I’m sure I’ll stay involved.”

Other initiatives over the years

Here are some of the other highlights from McCollister’s long run on the city Council:

— Collegetown zoning

McCollister was involved in years of debate over zoning regulations in Collegetown — and the extent to which development should be encouraged in the dense neighborhood.

“It’s one of the most difficult areas of the city to deal with,” she said.

— Collegetown Terrace

McCollister said she was proud of her work on Collegetown Terrace in reshaping the street-scape of the development and helping reshape the building map along State Street from the original proposal.

“Overall, I would say that the Collegetown Terrace project is vastly improved over the original site plan proposals presented last year,” McCollister told the Cornell Daily Sun in 2011.

— Historic districts

McCollister has been the Council’s liaison to the Ithaca Landmarks Preservation Commission.

She said she has sought to “advocate for historic districts and the value of history” in the city, and said it one of the facets of her work on Council that she’s most proud of.

“With all of the development we’re seeing, this is more important than ever,” she said.

(See this story in The Ithaca Journal for more on the city’s recent historic preservation efforts.)

Reactions from others at City Hall

A few others commented on the news that McCollister would not be running for re-election:

Mayor Svante Myrick — 

“Ellen’s departure from Common Council is a huge loss for the city of Ithaca. She is a peerless advocate for her constituents and one of the brightest, clearest planning minds in the entire city.”

“I served with her when I was an alderperson and learned the importance of preserving each neighborhood’s unique characteristics.”

“Since I’ve been mayor I have relied on her fiscal prudence, organizational management advice and planning expertise. She will be the first to tell you that we don’t agree on every issue – but I’ve come to trust her integrity and judgment.”

Council member Graham Kerslick (4th Ward) —

“Over the past six years on Council Ellen has served the City with passion, diligence and integrity. She made significant contributions to a wide range of issues from historic preservation to the Collegetown Plan.”

“She has been an excellent representative and advocate for residents of the 3rd Ward, while at the same time balancing the needs of the City as a whole.”

Council member Seph Murtagh (2nd Ward) — 

“Ellen has been an amazing public servant. She thinks independently, doesn’t seek the limelight, always looks for compromise even when it doesn’t benefit her politically, isn’t afraid to take an unpopular stand for something she believes in, represents her constituents doggedly, doesn’t get bogged down in ego or petty politics. Also, she has a great sense of humor, which helps.”

“There are a number of important initiatives that probably wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for her. Collegetown rezoning, for instance, she played a major hand in that, bridging differences, seeking compromise. She’s not the type to tout her own success, so the full extent of her role might not be widely known. But it’s been crucial, huge. She’s going to be sorely missed.”

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Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the founder and former editor of the Ithaca Voice.