By Seth Daniel
A Request for Propsals (RFP) from the state and City, along with several months of quiet government discussions regarding the siting of a heliport – potentially in or next to the South End, had the South End Forum on the hurry-up Tuesday night at its meeting.
Moderator Steve Fox introduced the agenda item to ask those in attendance if the various neighborhood associations would want to take a stand against a heliport being located within the South End or adjacent to the South End. The idea had been discussed in the neighborhood and by Fox since last summer, when Councilor Michael Flaherty introduced an order at the City Council calling for more information about any proposed downtown commercial heliport to accommodate General Electric (GE) executives. Though it has been an issue for Flaherty in South Boston for some years, the discussion cropped back up and widened after the GE deal went through as the state and City indicated it would help locate a site to develop a commercial heliport.
Two locations have been discussed under the radar for that 24/7 commercial heliport, including expanding the existing limited heliport at Boston Medical Center (BMC) in the South End, or more imminently perhaps, building a new one on several vacant parcels at Kneeland Street across the Expressway from the New York Streets neighborhood and the greater South End.
The Kneeland Street proposal made the agenda item even more timely on Tuesday night, as Gov. Charlie Baker and Mayor Martin Walsh had issued an RFP Tuesday afternoon to the general development community to come up with and submit redevelopment plans for the parcels – plans that would likely contain office uses, retail and perhaps a heliport.
“There is an RFP out there now and it’s a location that has been talked about for a heliport, a 24/7 commercial heliport,” said Fox.
“For Ink Block people, this should be a matter with some degree of interest,” he said. “For the rest of us, the location of any heliport should be talked about carefully. I ask if we want to go back to our neighborhood associations and ask people if this is a concerns and if we want to take a position with the City and the state that the South End community is opposed to siting a heliport in or near our South End community.”
Currently, Logan Airport does host some helicopters, but not that many. Landing fees are rather steep, and many executives flying in by helicopter for downtown destinations don’t want to have to drive through the harbor tunnels to their offices.
Talk last summer quickly focused on the idea of expanding the BMC heliport next to Melnea Cass Boulevard, or more likely, to locate it on Kneeland Street at the nexus of two helicopter flight paths, I-93 and the Mass Pike.
State officials have told the Sun some months ago they have looked at many locations, but all is very preliminary and no sites have been chosen or even considered seriously.
Eric Huang, president of Blackstone/Franklin Square Neighborhood Association, said he had trouble with trying to formulate a position without statistics and scientific information.
“My point is we don’t have information and it’s irresponsible to form opinions or take official positions we don’t have a lot of information about,” he said, noting that no one really knows what the impacts of a heliport might be.
George Stergios, president of the Worcester Square Area Neighborhood Association (WSANA), pointed out that the neighborhood does have some inkling of what a heliport can be like due to the limited operations of the BMC port. That, he said, would only be more of what is there.
He agreed to take it back to his membership for discussion – with WSANA, Blackstone, Old Dover and New York Streets likely being the most affected by either proposal.
Fox indicated that scientific information isn’t always necessary to form a community opinion. He reasoned that the community came together recently to discuss the founding of a Suboxone treatment program at the South End Community Health Center on Washington Street. Without a tremendous amount of data, he said many people have come to the conclusion that the South End is saturated with such services.
“We don’t have the scientific data for that, but our experience as neighbors is that it has become overwhelming,” he said.
To that end, Marleen Neinhuis of the Friends of the South End Library (FOSEL) said the community shouldn’t have a problem opposing the plan on the basis of common sense unless and until someone can prove that it benefits the South End.
“I think we should oppose it until we get information that proves to us it’s good for our neighborhood,” she said. “Let the lobbyists and corporate folks who want this dig up the information and present it to us. They can afford to do that. We’re volunteers and we’re fighting for our neighborhood.”
The RFP for Kneeland Street includes the City land, state land and the Veolia Steam Plan, which will be rebuilt on the site with any chosen RFP for the 5.5 acre property. The RFP does not mention a heliport, but many believe plans with such an operation might be preferred.
Meanwhile, neighborhood associations have agreed to put the matter on their agendas and discuss the idea of taking an opposition position. That would require a supermajority (12) of the the 15 member associations in the Forum. It is expected to return to discussion at the Jan. 3 South End Forum meeting.
In the meantime, City officials at the meeting – including Councilor Ayanna Pressley and a staff member from Council President Michelle Wu’s office – said there will be a public hearing Nov. 16 chaired by Wu on the heliport order drafted by Flaherty. It will be at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center in Southie.