Zoning Committee approves Bridgeport heliport

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A tour company’s $12.5 million plan to build a heliport on the south branch of the Chicago River was cleared for takeoff Tuesday, but not before an influential alderman waved the red flag about helicopter safety.

“A little over two weeks ago, there was an accident in Seattle where a helicopter tried to land, hit three cars. It killed some people. Because of incidents like that, you have to be very careful that what you approve really has these considerations in mind in terms of safety,” said Zoning Committee Chairman Danny Solis (25th).

Solis (25th) endorsed the Bridgeport heliport, only to withdraw his support under pressure from Pilsen residents concerned about a “sonic assault” from the “15-to-20” flights-a-day operated by Wheeling-based Chicago Helicopter Express.

On Tuesday, the Zoning Committee approved the project — over Solis’ objections — at the behest of local Ald. Jim Balcer (11th), whose ward includes the 4.6-acre site at 2408 — 2424 S. Halsted St.

The plan calls for construction of 14 launching pads, a 17,500-square-foot hangar, terminal with rooftop observation deck, water taxi dock and aircraft fueling station.

Prior to the final vote, downtown Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) closely questioned Chicago Helicopter Express CEO Trevor Heffernan about his flight plan.

Heffernan once again 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.

He promised to use what he called “the quietest helicopter on the market,” build sound barrier walls and follow a flight path toward Lake Michigan high above the Stevenson.

“I wanted to make sure that the project received the scrutiny it deserves in committee and I wanted those answers to be on the public record,” said Reilly, whose ward includes the Lurie Children’s Hospital in Streeterville, which includes a rooftop heliport to transport patients.

“Generally, I’m satisfied with what information I was supplied with. And we plan on holding them to their approved flight paths, which do not call for flights over downtown Chicago.”

Pressed on how he plans to hold Heffernan to his word, Reilly said, “Oh, I will. Out my window. And tens of thousands of my constituents will be keeping an eye on that, too.” 

Ald. Ray Colon (35th) questioned Heffernan about pricing tailor made to make helicopter tours affordable.

“You mentioned that you’re gonna have the best prices in the country. What is that price? What does it cost to get up there?” Colon said.

Heffernan replied, “$119 for an 18-minute tour. Put that in perspective. New York for eleven minutes, it’s $185. Las Vegas for about eleven minutes, it’s $110. So, our permanent cost…will be the best in the country. The way we’re able to achieve that is by owning the land, owning the facility and owning the helicopters themselves. Trimming a lot of that out of the cost should you be operating out of an airport allows us to offer the lowest price point possible.”

Heffernan said his goal is to draw tourists to Bridgeport and keep them there for a 90-minute “experience” that includes local restaurants, shops and art galleries.

“When they leave, the idea is that their experience was not, `I went on a helicopter ride.’ It’s, `I had dinner. I ate lunch at this great place. I hung out on the riverfront. I got to take a riverboat ride. And we went on a helicopter tour,’ ” Heffernan said.

Last month, the Chicago Plan Commission approved the Bridgeport heliport over the objections of a parade of Bridgeport and Pilsen residents concerned about long operating hours and about a company that kept residents in the dark for months, then belatedly gave them contradictory information.

Some of those same residents testified Tuesday. But, with Balcer’s blessing, it was a done deal.

The full City Council is expected to approve the Bridgeport heliport on Wednesday. That will mean that a city that’s been without one since former Mayor Richard M. Daley demolished Meigs Field under cloak of darkness will soon have two places where helicopters can take off and land.

A company called Vertiport already has City Hall approval to build a heliport in the Illinois Medical District.

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