FORT LAUDERDALE—The most convenient and cheapest parking spot in downtown Fort Lauderdale may also be the most scenic and expensive ever built.
It won't cost you a penny to park there, but you will need a skilled pilot like Adam Hammond to guide your whirly-bird above the heads of startled condo and office dwellers and through a maze of tall buildings.
Surrounded by upscale offices, restaurants and shops, the Fort Lauderdale downtown helistop comes with a 360-degree panoramic view of downtown. Built almost 10 years ago, it had a price tag of $3.6 million.
Hammond and his students are not the type of users city leaders hoped for back in the 1980s, when they floated the idea of putting a helicopter landing pad on the ninth-floor rooftop of the Central Park Mall Parking Garage at 201 SE Second Street.
City leaders dreamed of an endless stream of international tourists mingling in the heliport's posh lobby with local businessmen for whom travel time is money.
Critics back then said the 14,500-square-foot facility was over the top and a foolish luxury for a small city.
Today, on the eve of the helistop's 10-year anniversary in 2012, city officials call it a success, with about 200-300 operations a year. The port is staffed part time and funded through revenues generated by the nearby Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport.
Officials concede jet-set tourists and corporate elites make up only a fraction of its users — but that's not necessarily a bad thing.
On most days, the helistop is a training ground for pilots. It has been a scenic location for countless television shows and music videos, including the second-season finale of USA Network's "Burn Notice" and P. Diddy's "I am On You" music video.
It has also served as a strategic landing spot for police and rescue workers during emergencies.
"For us, it's a good example of forward thinking," said airport spokesman Chaz Adams. "Back then, none of all these buildings and businesses were here. They've all grown around the helistop. Now it makes perfect sense."
A helicopter hovering into view can be an alarming sight for the thousands who work or live in the bustling downtown.
To protect the passengers above and people living and working below, pilots follow Federal Aviation Administration rules. The pilots must check in with local air-traffic controllers, said assistant airport manager Mark Cervasio.
Permits for nearby high-rises, such as the Florida Atlantic University tower on Las Olas Boulevard, must be reviewed by a committee including FAA members. The structures are built in a way that doesn't interfere with the helipad's several protected pathways, he said.
So far, city officials say, the helipad has operated with no mishaps.
Still, flight instructor Hammond said a landing pad between skyscrapers has inherent dangers — that's part of its allure as a training ground.
"There is no room for error," he said. "If you come in long, you can slip off the building. If you come short, you go into the building.
The city does not keep a log of who comes and goes, said airport manager Clara Bennett. Reservations are needed only for helicopter stays longer than four hours.