At 2420 South Halsted Street, a heliport is set to break ground. Perched on the border of Bridgeport and Pilsen, the project is not alone—less than two and a half miles away, a Vertiport has begun to sprout thanks to sponsorship from Mayor Rahm Emanuel. That port will be built near Stroger Hospital, and will be used mostly for medical needs, although the city plans on opening it to corporate charters as well.
The Pilsen project, however, is geared towards the commercial. The $12.5 million facility will be owned by Chicago Helicopter Express (CHE), which plans to use the helipad to offer scenic tours of Chicago, as well as access to O’Hare, Midway, and charters for corporate commuters. Approved by the Chicago Plan Commission and the City Council and supported by the 11th Ward Alderman James Balcer, nothing stands to prevent the heliport from becoming a reality—except the widespread disapproval of the neighborhood’s residents.
The residents believe that the project threatens their safety and their peace. They say it even shakes their faith in local government. A number of community members feel that their community leaders have overlooked them, and fear that care for their well-being and happiness has been overtaken by a business geared towards indulging the frivolities of the wealthy.
With the helicopter flight path moving from Pilsen and Bridgeport over the Stevenson Expressway near Chinatown, citizens of all three neighborhoods are concerned by the possible dangers and inconveniences—noise pollution, potential for crashes, and decreased property values—to come from the project. Local government and the helicopter tour company have held a few community meetings to create a dialogue. However, some citizens feel that the meetings did not allow them a voice.
“There have been no local studies on this,” said Debbie Liu, a Bridgeport resident. “Worst of all, no one was informed. I reside in the tallest building in its flight path and we were not even informed.”
Liu lives in a high-rise apartment building on 24th and Canal Streets, less than a mile from the site and about two blocks away from the expressway that the helicopter routes trace. She was not notified of the project until after it was approved.
“CHE uses the quietest helicopters on the market, and will not be flying over anyone’s home or business at any time,” their website advertises. “A new sound barrier will absorb and deflect any additional noise created from operations, ensuring zero disturbances to the local community.”
Liu believes that just because the helicopter doesn’t fly directly over residencies or businesses doesn’t mean they will not be affected by the noise. “The flight path is just right by my building. My building is already subjected to higher-than-average noise levels from the highway and planes.”
Liu also criticizes the way the project coordinators have communicated with the community. “I am just frustrated that it never occurred to them to speak with the community with cultural competence,” she says. “There was no bilingual information given out to the area residents. The people in my building do not recall ever getting any notices. From what I know, they didn’t reach out to Chinatown residents. It is unreachable to the public.”
Complaints from across the community are beginning to snowball into a court case. John Tominello, a Bridgeport retiree, began to look for legal help with his wife, Janet Lamonica, after finding out about the heliport through an advertisement in the Bridgeport News. The retired couple, who have lived in Bridgeport all their lives, have serious concerns about the project, and have begun to work with the Hoff Law Group to fight the heliport. The firm is looking into the matter and is unable to comment on the legality of the CHE project at this time.
Tominello is angry. “They came here and told us that it was Disneyland-by-the-sea, it was going to be affordable tours for the poor and children—as if they were clamoring for tours—when in reality, it’s a corporate helicopter hub whose main purpose is to shuttle rich people back and forth from the airports.”
Though he is upset about the inconvenience of the heliport, Tominello is most peeved by what he perceives to be Alderman Balcer’s betrayal of Bridgeport’s tight-knit community. “We’re a community of generations of people and he hasn’t even stuck up for his own people, he just turned his back on us. He doesn’t even tell us that they’re going to put a flight path over your head or put in a helicopter hub. It’s so deceitful.”
Jerry Mead-Lucero of Pilsen Environmental Rights and Reform Organization (PERRO) is gathering Pilsen residents to try to fight the project. PERRO has organized several meetings to discuss ways to fight the helipad, and the movement has already scored a few successes—Pilsen Alderman Danny Solis withdrew his support from the project in February. Though he originally supported the project, Solis changed his mind in light of the lack of communication between project coordinators and the community.
In a letter issued to City Plan Commission Chairman Martin Cabrera Jr. and Commissioner Andrew Mooney, Solis said: “I have since learned that the developer has failed to meet with key neighborhood groups and has not secured formal support from any community organization.”
The presence of two helicopter hubs in such close proximity to one another has garnered attention from the organization Noise Free America. Ted Rueter, founder of the organization, calls the heliport “a sonic assault on the Pilsen neighborhood.” His concern centers around the affect that the noise would have on the citizens of the neighborhoods.
“Noise lessens property values,” Rueter argues, “makes it impossible for individuals to peacefully enjoy their own property, and is related to community deterioration.”
On the other side of the argument, Trevor Heffernan, CEO of the Chicago Helicopter Express company, sees his venture as a boon to the community. “A great tourist attraction is coming to a neighborhood that would otherwise never have any visitors,” Heffernan claims. “It’s going to boost business, create jobs, and educate children. Our mission statement is to make helicopter tourism safe, accessible, and affordable. We’ll be offering the lowest price point helicopter tour in the world and making it accessible to everyone.” The price of a thirty-five-minute tour of downtown for a single passenger is $199.
The official company website has a list of benefits that the endeavor will bring to the community, including “revenue for local businesses, more jobs, and education programs for local schools and churches.” Several businesses in the area believe the project will help boost local mom-and-pop operations like Connie’s Pizza and the Polo Café.
Despite the complaints of community members, Heffernan insists that the company has focused on “educating the community and providing a way for them to understand facts and put our processes in place and operate without impacting the quality of life of the surrounding community.” When asked about community outrage, Heffernan notes: “Whenever there is something new or something people are not educated on, there is always resistance.”
And yet, in spite of that outrage, the City Council has already approved plans for the heliport. Whether the helipad will be a blight on three neighborhoods or a job-creating tourist attraction, Heffernan’s vision is set to be realized.