by Casey Cora

DNAinfo Chicago

February 20, 2014

CITY HALL — A helicopter tour company’s bid to open a launch pad facility on the South Side is grounded for now.

The city’s Plan Commission deferred a proposed zoning change Thursday that would have paved the way for Chicago Helicopter Express to open a new facility along the bank of the Chicago River’s south branch.

The Wheeling-based company, which operates from the Chicago Executive Airport, proposed the privately funded $12.5 million facility earlier this year, hoping to open a new, privately funded $12.5 million facility in the 2400 block of South Halsted Street.

The facility would include helicopter landing and departure pads, a riverside water taxi dock, aircraft hangar, fueling stations and a LEED-certified observation deck. It has the backing of Ald. James Balcer (11th), who’s said the proposal would bring jobs and tourism to the city.

At Thursday’s meeting, the planning board decided to shelve the issue. It’s unclear when it will be brought up again.

The project was dealt two blows this week, first the withdrawal of support from Ald. Danny Solis (25th) and then from Friends of the Chicago River, which called the heliport an “inherently noxious use” of the waterway that could harm migratory birds and halt plans to connect a river trail with Chinatown’s revamped Ping Tom Park and other planned river developments.

“The noise, fumes and risks associated with 135 takeoffs and landings per day would discourage more river-friendly development,” Friends of the Chicago River Executive Director Margaret Frisbie said in a letter to the Plan Commission.

Chicago Helicopter Express said that’s unfair, not only because it says it will run a clean, quiet operation, but also because one of the nonprofit’s board members owns land adjacent to the proposed site and should have recused himself from chiming in altogether.

South Side yacht yard owner Grant Crowley, a founding board member of Friends of the Chicago River, owns several vacant parcels on the river’s south branch that sit next to the proposed site, records show.

“Apparently, the Friends of the Chicago River are their own best friends,” said Chicago Helicopter Express spokesman Eric Herman.

Crowley said “Everybody on the board knows I’m a property owner and knows where the properties are. … I stayed out of final discussions. I actually talked the least of anybody. I did not exert any pressure on this at all.”

The standstill at City Hall over the heliport is unfolding as a separate helicopter project in the Illinois Medical District gets underway.

There, developers are about to break ground on a “vertiport,” bordered by the Pink Line, Hastings Street, Wood Street and 15th Street,” to be used for medical air traffic and executive travel.

That project — which includes heavy-hitting investors like former Marine One pilot Mike Conklin and Stephen Quazzo, whose wife is a Mayor Rahm Emanuel campaign donor and appointee to the School Board — has been backed by Emanuel and other civic leaders, who say the facility would boost the city’s global profile.

It’s been more than a decade since Meigs Field was torn down, leaving big shots to fly into far-flung executive airports.

But the potential for competition has the heliport companies at odds.

Still, Trevor Heffernan, CEO of Chicago Helicopter Express, said his company would welcome a nearby aviation business.

“Vertiport fears competition. We embrace it,” he said in a statement.

But none of that seems to matter to neighborhood activists in Pilsen, who said two new helicopter ports would serve elite business interests and wealthy tourists while producing a “sonic assault” on the residents below.

“Once again, rich people are benefiting at the expense of working-class people in Pilsen. We have to fight for the greater good of our community. It’s a matter of environmental justice,” said Pilsen Environmental Rights and Reform Organization’s Miguel del Toral Jr.