Tour company's heliport plan up in the air amid lobbying

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A tour company’s $12.5 million plan to build a heliport on the south branch of the Chicago River is literally up in the air after a powerful alderman’s about-face and behind-the-scenes lobbying by a former City Hall insider.

Amid warnings of a “sonic assault” on Pilsen residents, Zoning Committee Chairman Danny Solis (25th) now wants to ground the plan by Wheeling-based Chicago Helicopter Express.

On Thursday, the Chicago Plan Commission is expected to consider the company’s plan to build a 17,500 sq.ft. hangar, terminal with rooftop observation deck, water taxi dock and aircraft fueling station on a 4.6-acre site at 2420 S. Halsted.

“I met with the developer and told him it wasn’t in my ward. He talked to [local Ald.] Jim Balcer. Then he came back to me saying it would be good if he got a letter of support from me because I used to be alderman. He was going to [take that] to a public meeting process in the community. Lately, I found out that wasn’t the case. So I withdrew my support,” Solis said Wednesday.

Solis said his about-face has nothing to do with the behind-the-scenes lobbying by Victor Reyes, former chieftain of the now-defunct Hispanic Democratic Organization (HDO) at the center of the City Hall hiring scandal.

Reyes represents Vertiport, a company that has Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s backing to build a heliport in the Illinois Medical District and apparently doesn’t want the competition.

The surprise about-face by Solis, who initially embraced the plan, pits Solis against Balcer, whose Bridgeport ward includes the proposed project.

Balcer said Wednesday he would urged the Plan Commission to forge ahead with the $12.5 million project.

“It’s the right thing to do. It does not interfere. It’s not on any flight patterns around homes. They have gone through the system. They have done everything they have to do,” Balcer said.

“It’s going to bring tourism to the city. It’s going to bring economic development to our area. It has a lot of positive aspects.”

The Pilsen Environmental Rights and Reform Organization has complained about the “sonic assault” caused by the proposed Pilsen heliport and the nearby launching pad near 15th and Wood.

But, Balcer said, “No one told the other people they can’t build…If they want to build another heliport, go ahead and build. From what I understand, there is really no sound effect with these helicopters.”

Solis initially joined local Balcer in endorsing the Bridgeport heliport. But, that was before the Pilsen environmental activists started beefing about the “sonic assault” caused by two heliports in close proximity.

“Dozens of helicopters flying in and out of the area every day will create constant noise–which causes sleep deprivation, hearing loss, headaches, and heart problems. Excessive noise also damages a community’s quality of life and property values,” Jerry Mead-Lucero, a PERRO organizer, was quoted as saying in a statement issued by the group.

PERRO member Miguel del Toral, Jr. added, “With dozens of helicopters taking off every day, all day from two heliports, the noise would be unbearable.”

He further noted that both sets of helicopters would serve “corporate executives and wealthy tourists” at the expense of local residents.

“Once again, rich people are benefiting at the expense of working-class people in Pilsen. We have to fight for the greater good of our community. It’s a matter of environmental justice,” del Toral was quoted as saying.

Thickening the plot is the fact that Stephen Quazzo, a key investor in rival Vertiport, is a campaign contributor to Emanuel whose wife is a mayoral appointee to the Chicago Board of Education.

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