BRIDGEPORT — A helicopter company's proposal to transform a vacant riverside lot into a busy hub for tourists and executives could be approved later this month, but some residents said the plan has been flying under their radar.
The prospect of choppers flying tourists and corporate bigwigs in and out of South Side neighborhoods has raised some concerns among local groups, who said they were never made aware of the $12.5 million project.
Wheeling-based Chicago Helicopter Express is looking to open a new facility on the shores of the Chicago River's South Branch at 24th and Halsted streets. The proposal is expected to go before the city's Plan Commission at its Feb. 20 meeting.
The company's plans, backed by Alds. James Balcer (11th) and Danny Solis (25th), include helicopter landing and departure ports, a private jet hangar, a water taxi dock and an observation deck — all to be spread among 4½ acres just west of Halsted Street and south of the river and near the Stevenson and Dan Ryan expressways and the CTA Orange Line tracks.
In an emailed statement, Chicago Helicopter Express CEO Trevor Heffernan said the location was chosen “because of its safety and efficiency."
“It is isolated from residential neighborhoods and surrounded by industry, rail yards and highways, thereby causing little to no extra noise in the area,” he said, adding that "no helicopter will ever be flying over any homes or neighborhoods at any time.”
The facility also would serve as a fueling station for the fleet and would be an optional fueling stop for the city's police airborne units.
Once launched, the company's aircraft would fly at 1,300 feet and largely follow flight paths toward Lake Michigan or along the nearby expressways. Tourist flights would follow one of several patterns that would whisk riders toward the lake, offering picturesque skyline views.
Records show the company's plans to move from a hangar at the northwest suburban Chicago Executive Airport into Bridgeport have the OK from the Illinois Department of Transportation and the Federal Aviation Administration, which said in a letter “We have no initial objections and see no reason why safe operations cannot be conducted.”
Still, the proximity to mass transit and expressways — and prime riverfront real estate — has raised some eyebrows.
"Of course it would be better in a wide-open area, but when you're looking at the city, it's like the best of the worst choice. If it's really busy, it could be a problem for the neighborhoods. It will be up to the neighborhoods to determine how much they can put up with,” said Eric Rudzinski, a pilot who helps run Rotor Zen, a helicopter charter business near Midway Airport.
A spokeswoman for the Friends of the Chicago River said the group couldn't comment until it sees the plans, which the company will present to them next week, just a few days before the Plan Commission's expected vote.
“We can't weigh in unless we have more information,” spokeswoman Margaret Frisbie said.
The company said it is not seeking taxpayer funding for the estimated $12.5 million project, which will bring in about 115 jobs.