CITY HALL — The City Council on Wednesday morning approved a north suburban company's $12.5 million plan to create a heliport on the bank of the Chicago River's South Branch.
Aldermen voted in favor of the plan without discussion.
Wheeling-based Chicago Helicopter Express is looking to install 14 pads for launching and landing the company's tour and charter helicopters, along with the creation of a hangar, observation deck and riverside water taxi dock.
CEO Trevor Heffernan has said the 18-minute helicopter tour flights, which whisk riders up and down Lake Michigan for skyline views, are only part of the company's 1½-hour tour experience. The rest would mostly take place in the riverside observation deck, which would include an interactive museum-like history of the city.
"We look forward to getting to follow through with the statements that we’ve made and to show everyone, supporters and opposition, that the project will be a big economic win for the city and the community. ... We’ll be a welcome neighbor to the Bridgeport community," Heffernan said.
The plan in recent weeks has sharply divided Pilsen and Bridgeport residents, with some calling the project an economic jumpstarter that would draw visitors to the South Side and others saying it's a noisy, unwanted intrusion.
Many local business leaders in Bridgeport have backed the proposal and said the increased exposure to Bridgeport would have a "trickle down" effect on the neighborhood's small businesses.
Dave Samber, chef-owner of the Polo Café and Bridgeport Bed and Breakfast, recently joined in a chorus of Bridgeport business owners who say the development would bring an economic boost to the neighborhood.
“Halsted Street is still a nervous breakdown with low-end retail and too many vacancies … I’ve yet to hear of any proposal that would be [as] beneficial to Bridgeport,” he said.
Still, not all local business leaders are happy about the decision.
The Bridgeport Business Association was hoping for a “community benefits agreement” that would specify the company’s plan to hire local workers and send tourists to the neighborhood’s shops, among other requests.
“The problem is, we never got to hear any plan. We never got to propose a plan. We just got vague promises,” BBA spokesman Rob Warmowski said in a blog post.
Neighborhood activists in Bridgeport and Pilsen had called for a deferral on the Council's vote, saying they needed more time to absorb the project.
Earlier this year, Ald. Danny Solis (25th) withdrew his support for the heliport, saying some residents in Pilsen — already concerned about helicopter noise from the nearby Vertiport development in the Illinois Medical District — didn't have a chance to meet with company leaders.
At a recent zoning committee hearing, Solis said he had safety concerns about the operation and brought up the recent news chopper crash in Seattle that left two people dead.
"I think because of incidents like that, you have to be very careful about what you approve," he said.
But the project has the backing of Ald. James Balcer, whose 11th Ward includes the proposed heliport site.
Heffernan has said the tour flights must follow a Federal Aviation Administration-approved path that has the helicopters rising from the riverfront helipads, then following the Stevenson Expy. as they make their way toward the lakefront, cutting down on noise and easing safety concerns of residents.
It's unclear when construction will start but Heffernan said the company will keep residents posted about job opportunities beginning this summer.
After the vote, Balcer said he was "very pleased" with the Council's decision.
"In the end, it's a $12 million investment in the city of Chicago. It means 50 jobs and taking a blighted piece of property and turning it into something that will bring economic development to the community," he said.
Balcer also said he'll continue to work with the community members and project opponents concerned about helicopter noise.
"I don't know if I can satisfy everybody but I can certainly try. I want to make it the best possible scenario for everyone in the ward," he said.