South Boston industrial park eyed as spot for helipad
City and state officials picked an industrial area of South Boston’s waterfront as the preferred location for the first public-use helipad near downtown Boston in more than 16 years.
After months of reviewing potential sites, leaders in the Walsh and Baker administrations settled on a city-owned pier behind the Blue Hills Bank Pavilion. Options include building on the pier; a floating barge next to the pier; or an adjacent property controlled by the Massachusetts Port Authority. Officials unveiled the locations during a packed City Council hearing at the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center on Wednesday night.
The concept of a helipad has been discussed in the city for years, after two landing sites available for use by the general public closed in 1999. (Helicopters can still land at Logan International Airport, on the other side of the harbor, and medical flights regularly land at city hospitals.)
City officials, under former Mayor Thomas M. Menino, came close to getting one built in 2008 in the South Boston marine industrial park, not far from the new location but closer to the neighborhood’s traditional residential area. Fierce neighborhood opposition killed that project.
General Electric’s decision in January to relocate to Boston from Connecticut revived discussions about finding a potential location. The Baker administration said it could pay for a helicopter landing facility as part of up to $125 million in state infrastructure grants offered to lure GE here.
John Barros, the city’s economic development chief, said the helipad would be expected to accommodate an estimated 10 to 20 flights a day, although there aren’t plans to open it to sightseeing operations. The goal, he said, would be to create a temporary no-frills “helistop” to gauge demand and its impact before building a permanent facility.
“We know there is demand as you talk to people,” Barros said in an interview. “There are companies that are interested, there are hospitals that are interested. We want to create something that meets the demand but not something that creates too much traffic.”
GE would likely represent a small portion of those flights. The company could use the helicopters to fly to its private jets parked at Hanscom Field, to its training campus in Westchester County, N.Y., or to meetings in Manhattan.
City councilor Michael Flaherty led the helipad resistance in 2008, but is keeping an open mind. He said he’ll watch the plans closely to ensure the helicopters won’t come close to constituents’ homes.
“If these things are going to be coming over the neighborhood, there’s no appetite for it,” Flaherty said in an interview. “I’m as excited as anyone for GE. But my focus is on the public, which depends on mass transit every day, and not the 1 percent of 1 percent who will be flying above the fray in a chopper.”
There has been widespread concern within Fort Point that officials would pick that neighborhood. GE’s future headquarters is expected to open along the Fort Point Channel in 2018, roughly a mile away from the pier behind the Blue Hills Bank Pavilion known as Dry Dock #4. But Barros promised during Wednesday’s hearing that Fort Point is off the table, prompting loud applause.
Donna Quirk, a Fort Point resident, said she was worried about the noise from helicopters and the possible impacts to property values and the harbor walk along the Fort Point Channel.
“You would never want to do that in an area where you wanted people to live,” Quirk said.
When the helipad will be built and how much it will cost remain unclear. Stephanie Pollack, the state’s transportation secretary, said she expected that the helipad would be publicly owned and likely run by a private contractor, and that fees generated from landings would cover operating costs.
Pollack and Barros said they would move quickly to appoint a task force that would include local officials and residents to study the issue and report back by Jan. 15. That deadline mirrors one set in a bill filed recently by Representative Nick Collins and Senator Linda Dorcena Forry. Pollack said she didn’t think legislation would be necessary.
Pollack said approvals would be needed from city officials and the Federal Aviation Administration before any location is chosen.
During the hearing, city councilor Tito Jackson generated applause by questioning the spending of state dollars on a helipad when there are other more pressing budgetary needs. “How does it help the regular people in the city of Boston who are simply struggling to pay the rent?” Jackson said.
And City Council President Michelle Wu pressed Barros and Pollack, asking whether or not a helipad is a fait accompli.
Barros said that the helipad project isn’t about serving “some elite class” but about providing an amenity that attracts companies that can boost the city’s overall economy. And he left the door open to not building one at all: “If, in fact, we found there was no site that was acceptable for a heliport or helipad, we would not have one in the city.”