BRIDGEPORT — The helicopter tour company looking to open on the South Side has blasted a leading environmental group's takedown of its proposal, saying it was "contaminated" because of a board member's ties to nearby developments.
"Though the [Friends of the Chicago River] describes itself as a 'leading advocate for Chicago waterways,' the letter shows that it advocates most strongly for its board members' financial interests," Chicago Helicopter Express CEO Trevor Heffernan wrote to city Plan Commission Chairman Martin Cabrera Jr.
The company is looking to build helicopter landing and departure ports, a private jet hangar, a water taxi dock and an observation deck on the bank of the river's south branch in the 2400 block of South Halsted Street.
At issue, the helicopter company says, is the involvement of Friends of the Chicago River board member Grant Crowley, the owner of the East Side marine business Crowley's Yacht Yard who owns several plots of riverfront land just west of the proposed 4.6-acre heliport site.
They say Crowley meddled in the process and tried to torpedo the project, which the Friends of the Chicago River's board called "an inherently noxious use" of the river in its Feb. 19 letter opposing the heliport.
"On information and belief, Mr. Crowley has told certain parties he opposes our heliport because it allegedly conflicts with his own commercial claims," Heffernan wrote.
Crowley said his ownership of the riverfront properties is no secret. Nor is his opposition to the heliport.
Crowley told DNAinfo Chicago he has tried to notify neighbors about the heliport, but did so as a landowner concerned with river development and not as a board member for the advocacy group.
What's more troubling, he said, is that Heffernan's company tried to keep its project hidden from neighborhood groups and the Friends of the Chicago River, which gets a peek at virtually all plans for riverfront projects in the city.
"The Friends had to reach out and ask for" information on the plan, Crowley said, adding that the two parties met for the first time less than a week before the plan commission was scheduled to vote on the proposal Feb. 20.
That vote was delayed after the proposal lost support from Ald. Danny Solis (25th), who said the company didn't reach out to Pilsen neighbors concerned with the potential for noise from the planned riverfront heliport or the nearby vertiport project in the Illinois Medical District.
The heliport would sit just outside of Solis' ward in the 11th Ward of Ald. James Balcer, who supports the project.
For its part, the Friends of the Chicago River is still against the heliport. The group said helicopter noise and the proximity to the vertiport would have harmful effects on the river and surrounding neighborhoods.
Heffernan said the company would use EC130 helicopters — "the quietest helicopters in the world" — and transform an industrial stretch of the river into a bustling tourist hub that would bring jobs.
"Given the manifest improvements that would come to the riverfront, it is difficult to fathom [Friends of the Chicago River's] opposition to our plan — until one knows about the Crowley real estate angle. No wonder they kept this information from you," Heffernan said to the commissioner in his letter.
Meanwhile, the helicopter company has started an online petition to garner support, posted details of the project on its official website and begun collecting signatures from neighborhood business owners who are backing the proposal.