Eleven years after former Mayor Richard M. Daley demolished Meigs Field under cloak of darkness, Chicago will soon have two places where helicopters can take off and land.
The Chicago Plan Commission made sure of that Thursday by clearing for take-off a plan by Wheeling-based tour company Chicago Helicopter Express to build a $12.5 million heliport on the south branch of the Chicago River.
That makes two. Mayor Rahm Emanuel has already given another company, Vertiport, approval to build a heliport in the Illinois Medical District.
Chicago Helicopter Express plans to shift its operations from Wheeling to Chicago and provide helicopter tours and private charter shuttles from a blighted, 4.6-acre site at 2408-to-2424 S. Halsted.
The plan approved Thursday calls for construction of 14 launching pads, a 17,500 sq.ft. hangar, terminal with rooftop observation deck, water taxi dock and aircraft fueling station.
It was approved over the objections of a parade of Bridgeport and Pilsen residents concerned about long operating hours and up to 125 helicopter flights per day — as well as about a company that kept residents in the dark for months, then belatedly gave them contradictory information.
“We need verifiable answers—not just the company’s word–and an enforceable agreement that will bind the company to its safety and community benefits agreement,” said area resident Jill Salinas.
“It is hard for us as residents to believe that, given the inherent nature of helicopter operations and the impact of prevailing winds on flights paths that the helicopters will, under no circumstances, be flown over homes and businesses.”
But company officials insist there will be just 15 tours a day, meaning 15 takeoffs and 15 landings — far fewer than the 125 flights feared by neighbors.
Company CEO Trevor Heffernan insisted that his helicopter tours would have “zero impact” on noise in a community that’s plenty loud already because of CTA buses, the Orange Line and traffic on the Stevenson and Dan Ryan Expressways.
Heffernan promised to follow a flight path toward Lake Michigan high above the Stevenson and build sound barrier walls. He touted his use of “the quietest helicopter on the market built specifically to fly in urban areas”: the Eurocopter EC-130 with a tail rotor system tailor-made to reduce noise.
“The location…is in a pocket that’s isolated by two highways, the railroad tracks, the river, industrial properties. It also serves a direct flight corridor out to Lake Michigan without ever flying over any homes or businesses….It’s over 1,200 feet from the nearest neighborhood,” Heffernan said Thursday.
“The location not only lends itself to be accessible to visitors and residents of Chicago via the Orange Line, the water taxi stop, Halsted and Archer as well as several highways. It also makes it a safe location because all flight paths are never over any homes, never disturbing homes. More importantly, those flight paths aren’t gonna change because the highways and railroads aren’t going away. So, it gives us longevity and safety.”
Ald. Jim Balcer (11th), whose Bridgeport ward includes the project, agreed that there would be “almost zero disturbance to the community.” He’s all for a project he called a boon to tourism.
“It means jobs. It means economic growth. It means no TIF money will be used. TIF money will be put in. Fifty or more direct jobs at all level skills will be brought in. Increased revenue for local business. New business and growth in the community, which also creates jobs and revenue. Increased property values,” the alderman said.
A decorated Marine and City Council champion on veterans issues, Balcer added, “I’ve served in Vietnam. I was in helicopters. I’ve been up in the police helicopter. In no way would I support anything that endangered my community. Last Sunday, myself and my son, who is 19, went up for a ride. There is no way I would endanger my son’s life in a helicopter if I thought it was unsafe.”
Zoning Committee Chairman Danny Solis (25th) did not attend Thursday’s meeting.
Solis had endorsed the Bridgeport heliport, only to withdraw his support amid warnings of a “sonic assault” on Pilsen residents.
Solis said his about-face has nothing to do with the behind-the-scenes lobbying by Victor Reyes, former chieftain of the now-defunct Hispanic Democratic Organization (HDO) at the center of the City Hall hiring scandal.
Reyes represents Vertiport, which apparently doesn’t relish the competition.
Without mentioning Daley’s infamous 2003 decision to carve giant X’s into the Meigs runway, Planning and Development Commissioner Andy Mooney couldn’t help but note the sudden embarrassment of riches when it comes to heliports.
“The city has been without a heliport now since — for a number of years. Perhaps shortly, we will have two. But, we feel that a city of the nature, size and global [reach] of Chicago needs this type of capacity,” Mooney said.