CHICAGO — The city's Plan Commission voted unanimously to approve a controversial plan to create a heliport on the South Branch of the Chicago River.
Chicago Helicopter Express, which operates from the north suburban Chicago Executive Airport, is looking to move its operation to the south branch of the Chicago River at 24th and Halsted streets in Bridgeport.
The proposal includes the creation of 14 pads for launching and landing the company's tour and charter helicopters, as well as private helicopters. Flights would run from 10 a.m.-10 p.m. daily, but the facility — which includes a hangar, observation deck and riverside water taxi dock — would open at 5:30 a.m. and close at midnight for maintenance and other tasks.
The plan in recent weeks has sharply divided Pilsen and Bridgeport residents, with some calling the project and economic jumpstarter that would draw visitors to the South Side and others saying it's a noisy, unwanted intrusion.
At Thursday's plan commission hearing, some of the residents and business leaders lined up to praise the company for its plan or to chide them for what they called a "lack of transparency" in bringing the proposal public and asked city officials to delay their decision.
"We need verifiable answers, not just the company's word," said Jill Salinas, of Pilsen.
Company CEO Trevor Heffernan's proposal calls for two different types of flight operations at the heliport: tours and charters operated by Chicago Helicopter Express as well as "approved" third-party operators, including police and fire, medical, media, industrial and privately owned helicopters.
The company plans to use about 85 percent of the fuel it will store at the site in above-ground tanks. The remaining would be sold to the third-party operators, with plans to eventually generate $450,000 in fuel sales, records show.
Many supporters said the facility would boost tourism, offering visitors to Chicago an unparalleled experience.
"What we need, definitely, are helicopter tours," said Carla Gerts, president of the Windy City Connection tour group, which takes tourists on neighborhood walking tours and river cruises.
Although the plan lost support of Ald. Danny Solis (25th), several business groups, including Pilsen's Eighteenth Street Development and Redmoon Theater, have thrown their support behind the heliport.
Still, other business groups, including the newly formed Bridgeport Business Association, want more assurances that the company would be a good neighbor.
Ald. James Balcer, whose 11th Ward includes the proposed site, has been a backer from the beginning.
He said the company took him on a skyline tour earlier this month and that he was impressed with the whole operation, which he lauded for its potential to bring jobs to the area.
"There's no way I would support anything that would endanger my community ... I wholeheartedly support this," he said.
Earlier this week, helicopter pilot Delon Freund, a Bridgeport resident, police officer and lead pilot for the Chicago Police Department's Helicopter Task Force, authored a letter of support backing the company's plan.
Freund wrote he "simply cannot find a negative aspect to the project ... As set forth, [the company] has a solid plan with solid backing and a solid team to see it through."
Backers of the Bridgeport proposal sought to separate the project from the lllinois Medical District’s “vertiport,” which would used for medical air traffic and executive travel. It’s unclear if that operation would include tours.
But the city shouldn’t wait to see what develops there, supporters said.
“The rides and tours segment of the market is important to Chicago's future as a lure for tourists,” Hank Perritt Jr., veteran pilot and former dean of the Chicago-Kent College of Law, said in a letter to commissioners. “Heffernan’s plan is ‘real and ready to go.’”
With the Plan Commission's approval, the measure is expected to go before the full City Council for a vote next month.