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Bridgeport heliport plan grounded for another week

Updated: March 24, 2014 7:19PM

A tour company’s $12.5 million plan to build a heliport on the south branch of the Chicago River will remain grounded for another week, but not because of a powerful alderman’s about-face in response to a Pilsen community outrcry about noise.

Ald. Danny Solis (25th) said he took the proposed heliport off Monday’s agenda for the Zoning Committee he chairs, only because he anticipated a lengthy debate and can’t stick around long enough to hear it.

When Solis abruptly yanked the Bridgeport heliport off the Zoning Committee agenda, it fueled speculation he was putting a permanent brick on the project. That's a move that would defy the City Council's time-honored tradition of deferring to the wishes of the local alderman on zoning issues.

On Monday, Solis flatly denied that and insisted the delay was temporary.

Instead, the plan by Wheeling-based Chicago Helicopter Express will be heard — and almost certainly approved — on March 31, the chairman said.

“I withdrew my support on it. The community I represent has expressed strong reservations on it. At this point, I’m not for it. But I think the committee will very much support it and vote it through,” Solis said Monday.

Solis noted that the 4.6 acre site at 2408-to-2424 S. Halsted is no longer located in the old 25th Ward, but the newly-redrawn 11th Ward, represented by Ald. Jim Balcer (11th).

“I respect aldermanic prerogative. Ald Balcer has communicated to me that this is something he wants. I’ll hear it, and it will go to the [full] City Council” on April 2, Solis said.

Chicago Helicopter Express plans to shift its operations from Wheeling to Chicago and provide helicopter tours and private charter shuttles from the blighted Bridgeport site.

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

It was approved by the Chicago Plan Commission last week over the objections of a parade of Bridgeport and Pilsen residents concerned about helicopter noise, long operating hours and about a company that kept residents in the dark for months, then belatedly gave them contradictory information.

Company CEO Trevor Heffernan countered 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 has promised to follow a flight path toward Lake Michigan high above the Stevenson and to 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.

“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...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.”

Balcer 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...Fifty or more direct jobs at all levels...Increased revenue for local business. New business and growth in the community, which also creates jobs and revenue. Increased property values,” the alderman said.

“I’ve served in Viet Nam. 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.”

Solis endorsed the Bridgeport heliport, only to withdraw his support amid warnings of a “sonic assault” on Pilsen residents. Solis was already under fire from Pilsen community leaders for supporting a recycling center in his ward.

The chairman has insisted that 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 already has City Hall approval to build a heliport in the Illinois Medical District and apparently doesn’t relish the competition.

If, as expected, the City Council finally approves the Bridgeport heliport, it will mean that a city that’s been without one since former Mayor Richard M. Daley demolished Meigs Field under cloak of darkness in 2003 will soon have two places where helicopters can take off and land.

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