Two representatives of the City’s Economic Development Commission, Josh Nachowitz and Patricia Ornst, gave a presentation yesterday to the Finance District Committee of Community Board 1, which encompasses downtown Manhattan, concerning efforts to alleviate noise from helicopters using the Downtown Manhattan Heliport. Several Brooklynites were present by invitation, including Judy Stanton, Executive Director of the Brooklyn Heights Association, BHB reader and frequent commenter Jeffrey J. Smith, a woman resident of One Brooklyn Bridge Park, and your correspondent. The EDC duo began by asserting that there has been a reduction in helicopter noise complaints, but, when asked, couldn’t say by how much. They then shifted to saying there had been a reduction in the number of flights because of the agreement to end “short tours” that circled the Statue of Liberty then returned to the Heliport. Asked about a recent increase in flights, Ms. Ornst echoed T.S. Eliot in saying April is the cruellest month, breeding not lilacs out of dead land but tourists yearning to see New York city from aloft.
Asked if the city could limit the number of flights from the Downtown Heliport, Mr. Nachowitz said there is a “capacity limit,” but didn’t specify what that limit is. At one point, there was a mention of 200 flights having occurred daily; asked if this meant a total of 400 takeoffs and landings, Mr. Nachowitz said, “Not necessarily.” The EDC representatives said the limits on flight paths were being effectively enforced, with four pilots having been hit with $1,000 fines for violations. Mr. Nachowitz urged residents to use the 311 reporting system, specifying the helicopter’s color, tail number and location. Asked about the effectiveness of such complaints in determining violations leading to fines had occurred, he said there were ways of corroborating 311 complaints so that violations could be verified.
A downtown Manhattan resident who serves on the C.B. 1 Financial District Committee raised the issue of pollution from helicopter engine exhaust, which he said is blown into the streets and is hazardous to residents’ health. He asked if the EDC was willing to cooperate with the EPA and the Committee in studying this problem; the EDC representatives said that was possible.
Mr. Smith, brandishing a sheaf of computer printouts, said that a few minutes of web research had produced numerous examples of safety violations by the helicopter industry, and that the industry was notorious for its casual approach to safety. He said that continued operation of tourist flights from the Downtown Heliport assured that there would be a serious accident.
A representative from State Senator Daniel Squadron’s office said that the Senator had been involved in negotiating the agreement on limiting tourist flights, but had now concluded, as had other elected officials, that the issues of noise and safety could not be satisfactorily addressed except by a complete ban on tourist flights. The EDC representatives responded that such a ban would simply mean that the flights would continue, but that they would originate in New Jersey, thereby eliminating the City’s ability to regulate flight paths. Ms. Stanton pointed out that moving the flights to New Jersey would be a good result from the perspective of Brooklyn and downtown Manhattan residents, as it would eliminate the noise of takeoffs and landings, as well as helicopters warming up or idling on the Heliport.
We have also, courtesy of the BHA, received a copy of a letter, dated yesterday, from U.S. Representative Nydia Velazquez to Mayor Bloomberg, urging the Mayor to ban tourist helicopter flights. Noting the efforts to mitigate the noise and safety issues over the past year, she said that it is now evident to her, as well as to state and city officials who have also been involved, that “incremental steps will not address the core problem.” Her letter notes that the noise problem arises not just from helicopters in flight, but from those doing the mandatory half hour warm-up before takeoff. The water around the Heliport amplifies the sound of the helicopters’ rotors, increasing the impact on nearby residents. Her letter also stresses the safety issues, noting that the Federal Aviation Administration doesn’t regulate flights under 1,500 feet and pointing to a fatal collision that occurred in August of 2009. Her letter continued:
All concerned parties have worked to find compromise, but the solutions to date have not addressed the underlying problem — namely, that helicopter tours are a bad fit in such a densely populated urban area. The city’s tourism would not suffer if tourist helicopter rides were suspended. In fact, the quality of life and neighborhood tourist destinations on the ground would improve. Tourists can find equally spectacular views of the city skyline at Brooklyn Bridge Park or the Brooklyn Heights Promenade and other world-famous destinations, without noise that disrupts the community.