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A helipad is coming, but where?

The grassy plot south of Kneeland Street near an entrance to the O’Neill Tunnel is one prospective location.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

Promising a helipad in Boston to help persuade General Electric Co. to come here — that was the easy part.

The hard part is fulfilling that pledge in a densely packed city that’s buzzed by low-flying airplanes and brimming with easily angered neighbors.

Which is perhaps why the state has already discussed a small patch of grass just to the south of the Tip O’Neill Tunnel, an unremarkable place so close to the surrounding highways that pilots could all but converse with motorists stuck in rush-hour traffic.

But that’s just one possibility. The state Department of Transportation is also expected to look at a number of other locations close to GE’s future headquarters in Fort Point. And then there’s always the option of sticking a helipad on a barge in the water.


The search is not solely about GE. Because state money will be used, the site also needs to be accessible to the general public, including other businesses that want to use helicopters. To jump-start the effort, the agency plans to enlist an outside firm in the next few weeks to help evaluate potential sites.

The issue has been discussed for years, essentially since the city’s last two public helicopter landing facilities closed in 1999. But GE serves as a catalyst: The Baker administration pledged in January to pay for a new helicopter landing site, one of several enticements worth up to $120 million to lure GE’s headquarters to Boston from Connecticut.

It’s not easy finding a spot for a helipad in Boston. City officials were close to allowing one in the South Boston marine industrial park, before residents showed up in force to oppose it in 2008. Around that time, officials discussing an expansion of the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center considered adding a helipad to replace one that was wiped out from the original construction. But that idea didn’t go far.


Transportation officials are keeping tight-lipped about the latest search. It’s not clear whether the state will decide to build a simple “helistop,” essentially a paved area cleared for helicopter landings, or a more elaborate heliport with amenities such as fuel and an enclosed waiting area.

Agency spokeswoman Jacquelyn Goddard said in an e-mail that her agency has been meeting with “subject matter experts.” In addition to bringing on an outside firm, the agency eventually plans to put together a more formal advisory group.

For GE’s part, spokeswoman Susan Bishop said the company remains flexible about the location and the timing. GE would use the helipad to shuttle employees to its training campus in Crotonville, N.Y., and to Hanscom Field in Bedford, among other places. The company has signed an agreement with a hanger operator in Hanscom to house two GE helicopters and two corporate jets there, starting in September, Bishop said.

The difficulties inherent in the search for a helipad spot were evident in e-mails among state officials as they weighed how to woo GE to Boston late last year.

In the e-mails — obtained through a public records request made by the Globe — state officials saw South Boston’s Seaport section as having possible locations. But Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack wrote that many sites there could conflict with Logan Airport flight paths.

She also noted that those locations may need a special waterfront license from the state, which could involve what she called a “long and painful process.” If, however, the helipad is built on Massachusetts Port Authority-owned land in South Boston, she wrote, transportation officials would have a “workaround” to streamline the bureaucratic process.


As an alternative to the Seaport, state officials focused their discussions in those e-mails on the small grassy hill encircled by highway ramps, south of Kneeland Street near the northbound entrance to the O’Neill Tunnel.

The state-owned site had been considered during the Patrick administration but was later rejected because of neighborhood concerns and because transportation officials worried that drivers on the highway would be distracted.

The location returned to the debate in 2015 when the New England Helicopter Council finished a report that showed several advantages to the location: It meets federal guidelines for heliport design criteria, for example, and already sits within an approved helicopter route.

Then, in December, the site came up again as state officials raced to put together a compelling incentive package to bring GE here.

Transportation Department chief of staff Rob Garrity wrote in an e-mail on Dec. 24 that before GE entered the picture, state officials didn’t expect that a helipad on that land could get through the city permitting process, “but with the city administration onboard, that would be different.”

Jeff DeCarlo, the state’s aeronautics administrator, estimated in another e-mail that it would cost $500,000, primarily for paving work, to build a bare-bones heliport at the Kneeland Street site, above a capped pile of potentially contaminated materials from the Big Dig.


In an interview, Massport chief executive Thomas Glynn mentioned another possibility: a floating barge-like structure that could be attached to land, either in Fort Point Channel or in Boston Harbor.

Any helipad project would likely face criticism from neighbors and the politicians who represent them, and from critics of the GE incentive package.

City Councilor Michael Flaherty, who drove the South Boston helipad opposition in 2008, said he is keeping a close eye on the latest search to ensure that “the interests of residents should come before the interests of the elite.” And state Representative Nick Collins said he wouldn’t support any proposal that sends helicopters over his neighborhood in South Boston.

Meanwhile, critics of the GE incentive package say the helipad issue is symbolic of broader government misspending — even though the facility would be available to any company. “It’s a poster child for . . . what’s wrong with the way these deals get made,” said Evan Falchuk, a Newton resident who chairs the United Independent Party.

Helicopters can land at Logan Airport today. But helicopter pilot Wes Verkaart said the airport charges landing fees that total $300, a steep price, and many travelers would prefer to take off or land from a spot closer to the downtown. He hopes GE’s arrival could finally make a less expensive helicopter site a reality. But he’s also skeptical.

“I’ll be lucky if this happens in my lifetime,” said Verkaart, who flies out of Plymouth’s airport. “I’m well familiar with . . . how political this kind of approval process can be.”


Jon Chesto can be reached at jon.chesto@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.