BY YANNIC RACK | The city has reached a surprise deal to cut the helicopter-tour traffic thundering in and out of the busy Downtown Manhattan Heliport in half, but residents in Manhattan say they still want to see the noisy birds sent flying from the city for good.
John Dellaportas, who heads the advocacy group Stop the Chop NYNJ, said he felt betrayed by the city councilmembers who had vowed to outright ban the industry, which has long been criticized for terrorizing residents along the Hudson River.
“It’s a complete sell-out by our elected officials, especially Councilmembers Chin, Rosenthal, and Menchaca,” he said. “They promised us they were going to try to enact a complete ban, and instead behind our backs cut a deal with the helicopter industry.”
Dellaportas added, “The helicopters will continue to fly, 10 hours a day, six days a week. It’s still a pretty steady din, so I don’t think this will have any less impact for us.”
The arrangement, hammered out by the city’s Economic Development Corporation, which owns the Downtown Manhattan Heliport, preempts far more drastic legislation under consideration by the Council that would effectively banish the helicopter-tour industry from Manhattan.
Councilmembers Helen Rosenthal from the Upper West Side, Margaret Chin from Lower Manhattan, and Carlos Menchaca from Brooklyn — the sponsors of the bill — had grilled reps of the EDC and the tour operators at a contentious City Council hearing back in November.
But in a joint statement included with the city’s January 31 announcement of the deal, they claimed victory for forcing the EDC’s hand to reach a compromise — signaling to Dellaportas and his fellow critics that the bill was effectively put on hold.
“As Council Members, we are proud to have pushed forward legislation that helped give our constituents a voice and a rallying point in the fight to reduce noise and air pollution caused by the increasing number of tourist helicopter flights,” they said. “Today’s announcement — a 50 percent reduction in tourist helicopter flights and no flights on Sundays — is a huge step forward in protecting the quality of life of thousands of New Yorkers, and offers our constituents some sense of immediate relief.”
Asked if the deal came in lieu of a ban, a representative from Chin’s office told Community Board members in Lower Manhattan that the legislation was by no means off the table.
“The legislation has not been withdrawn,” said Paul Leonard, Chin’s communications chief. He hinted, however, that the councilmembers would only make a move if the deal failed to make a difference.
“We will push forward if the industry does not abide by the terms of their agreement,” he said.
In an interview, Rosenthal defended the compromise as necessary, especially since the bill did not have enough support to pass the Council anytime soon.
“It’s going to take quite a bit of work to get the bill passed,” she said. “And at this point we made a decision, as the ones that are carrying this legislation, that this would provide more immediate relief.”
She added that the legislation was still active in the Council and that she would keep pushing her colleagues to support it.
“It can always be pulled out again,” she said. “The agreement the administration made with the helicopter industry does not change our feelings about the legislation.”
Helicopter-tour operators will now have to cut half of all flights at the Pier 6 heliport near the Battery by January 2017, and end all flights on Sundays by April 1 this year.
“The din of helicopters has been a major quality of life issue for New Yorkers living near heavily trafficked routes,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said in the statement announcing the deal. “Today we’re addressing it.”
The cutback will be phased in over the course of the year, with a 20 percent reduction from 2015 levels beginning June 1, and a 40 percent reduction by October 1. The city estimates that by this time next year, the agreement will have eliminated nearly 30,000 helicopter flights annually.
Local lawmakers last year said the legislation was overdue after years of complaints about incessant noise and noxious fumes caused by the choppers along their route from the tip of Lower Manhattan up the Hudson River to Washington Heights.
“These days the pleasure of a sunny bench and a river view is being obliterated by a fleet of helicopters flying up and down the Hudson,” wrote Adrian Benepe, the parks commissioner under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, in an op-ed published in the New York Times the same weekend the deal was announced. “Just as the noise from one chopper fades away, a new one approaches, and it feels as if we’re trapped in a landing zone on a military base.”
But helicopter-tour operators and the de Blasio administration have argued that the economic benefits to the city — which also bags $2.9 million in annual rent for the heliport — outweigh the misery of residents.
Those who have suffered the drone of the copters for years — with flights thundering in and out of the heliport as many as 28 times every hour during the day — said this week that the agreement doesn’t go far enough.
“It’s very distressing to the people who hear it every day. The helicopters are very noisy,” said Sharon Canns, an Upper West Sider and president of the tenant association at 50 West 93rd Street. “I would like to see it banned. I don’t agree with a lot of compromises, because they never work out well.”
Aaron Biller, president of the community group Neighborhood in the Nineties, said the deal would bring some relief but shouldn’t be the end of the discussion.
“It’s a good start. I don’t know whether you can realistically expect the city to ban that industry,” he said. “Like everything else in this town, it comes down to interest groups.”
Residents along the helicopters’ flight path also criticized the city for waiting a full year before enacting the full set of restrictions.
“We’re not going to see any improvement until next year,” Biller said. “And then the issue will be whether they really enforce this.”
A chorus of elected officials, who have been crusading against the tour-chopper scourge, hailed the deal as a step in the right direction, but said they would continue their push to eliminate the choppers altogether.
“We have long called for a complete ban on nonessential tourist helicopters from the Downtown Manhattan Heliport, and still support a full ban,” proclaimed a joint statement by the pols, including Congressmember Jerrold Nadler, Borough President Gale Brewer, State Senator Brad Hoylman, and Assemblymember Linda Rosenthal.
Behind the scenes, some of them seemed to have even stronger feelings about the agreement.
“We consider it a half-measure,” a spokesperson for Nadler, who has been working to curb the copters for years, told Manhattan Express.
Helen Rosenthal said the fact that the pols released a statement separately from the councilmembers did not mean they weren’t on the same page regarding a ban.
“Let’s face it, that entire group has been fighting for fixes to this situation for a decade,” she said. “Their frustration level is very high, and I understand that. They would like the three of us [councilmembers] to work miracles and pass this bill immediately. We’re working very hard to get it passed, but I’m realistic about our chances for any kind of immediate relief.”
Last year, more than 59,000 flights took off from Pier 6. According to Leonard, the reductions will be enforced on a month-to-month basis — meaning the busy summer season will continue to see more flights than the quieter winter months.
Tour operators will have to provide monthly reports on the number of flights to both the EDC and the Council, and if they are determined to have violated key terms of the agreement, the EDC will have authority to impose further reductions in the number of flights allowed.
A third-party monitor, paid for by the operators, will also conduct field observations, according to the city.
Saker Aviation, the concessionaire for the Downtown Manhattan Heliport, has agreed to establish a system to monitor air quality in the vicinity of the heliport and provide monthly reports to the EDC and the Council. Saker has promised to reduce idling by helicopters between flights as well.
Currently, 219 people are employed in the helicopter-tour industry, according to the EDC, including 50 at the Downtown heliport. The tours used to take off from two other heliports as well, at East 34th Street and West 30th Street, but they were all moved Downtown by 2010 due to neighborhood opposition.