AVONDALE — Almost two years after the sad end of Redmoon Theater, former executive director Jim Lasko is ready for a comeback, and he's making it in Avondale.
Lasko and two business partners are planning to open a huge maker space in four old Hu-Friedy warehouses at 3130-38 N. Rockwell St.
An Avondale resident of 25 years, Lasko said he's been working on the project for about two years, which is around the time he was forced to close Redmoon after 25 years of performances in the wake of the Great Chicago Fire Festival debacle and an unsuccessful move to a larger venue.
"I learned many hard lessons along the way, and the unexpected conclusion was for sure the hardest thing that happened," Lasko said of Redmoon's ending. "But it became clear really quickly that it was time to change direction and find a new endeavor."
Lasko said he thinks he's found something that will be a great fit for his own talents and for the neighborhood, which is experiencing break-neck development and a rush of trendy businesses like Metropolis Coffee and eateries like Pisolino and DMen Tap.
The building, called Guild Row, will house everything from an industrial kitchen and a woodworking shop to a 4,800-square-foot event venue. Lasko described it as a "social club" designed to "bring people together around the experience of making things."
"You see how many restaurants are offering pasta-making classes or all the maker spaces that are happening [in Chicago], and it speaks to this real hunger we have to use our hands and connect to the material things of our world," Lasko said.
Despite his theater background, Lasko said the act of making things — not putting on performances — will be the focus.
"It's really about being with people and connecting people," Lasko said. "There's a kind of magic to the way people connect through making things."
He also sees the potential to better the neighborhood with collaborative projects channeled through Guild Row, like woodworking makers designing new playground equipment for neighborhood parks.
With help from his business partners, Lasko is forging ahead with the neighborhood and city approval process, but the project is not without its opponents.
The team recently applied for license to allow live performances and cover charges, according to Chicago Cityscape, which lists an open-air courtyard, rooftop patio and meeting hall as additional components of the project. A community meeting with Avondale Neighborhood Association is also in the works, but likely won't be until September at the earliest.
The project has the support of Ald. Deb Mell (33rd) — so long as Lasko and his partners come up with a viable parking plan, she said.
Mell said she's planning to meet with officials from the Chicago Department of Transportation soon to develop a long-term parking plan for the Rockwell corridor, which will become even more of an issue with future development.
"I always like to see warehouses repurposed instead of torn down, and we really believe in this corridor," Mell said. "We think the buildings are really strong and historic and beautiful, and we like the idea of people being able to get jobs over there."
Currently, Lasko's team is working with Hu-Friedy to use some of the company's parking lots on the north side of Belmont Avenue, about a three-minute walk from the future Guild Row.
"Everyone’s really supportive of [the Guild Row proposal], but they’re a little leery of the parking situation," Mell said.
One such critic is Mark Thomas, owner of soon-to-reopen punk shop The Alley. Thomas lives in Avondale and operates Alley warehouses and some studio offices in the building next to the proposed Guild Row project.
Thomas fears that parking issues will only get worse with the maker space combined with the nearby industrial complex that is now home to Metropolitan Brewing's new brewery/taproom and the Metropolis Roastery at 3057 N. Rockwell St.
“They want to open this really cool concept, and I loved it. And I told them I loved it, but there’s just not enough parking in the neighborhood," Thomas said, adding that the lots on Belmont aren't ideal because of their distance from the warehouses.
"I said, 'Fellas, I’m in opposition to your rezoning, a liquor license, anything, until you have real parking,'" said Thomas, who is skeptical that Guild Row patrons will park farther if they can snag a spot on the street instead.
Lasko, on the other hand, contends the Belmont lots, offering about 120 spots, are "more than adequate" in a city that's actively working to discourage driving in favor of transit-oriented development.
"If you keep accommodating everybody who has cars and park all the time, you just breed a need for more cars and parking," Lasko said. "I'm not callous by any means to their concerns, but I think we have really thought about it and, for the most part, addressed the concerns."
For big events inside Guild Row, the complex will offer valet parking for guests and utiliize the parking lots. In other cases, Lasko said Guild Row will give members of the maker's space incentives to use the parking lots instead of taking up street spaces off Rockwell.
After 25 years, Lasko was forced to close Redmoon in 2015.
Lasko previously said the theater was ultimately sunk by "two big bets" Redmoon made — a planned move to a massive 57,000-square-foot venue in Pilsen and the now-infamous Great Chicago Fire Fest in 2014.
Well documented in headlines and by a crowd of tens of thousands who braved cold, gloomy weather expecting a spectacle, the festival was considered at best a failure and at worst a fiasco.
Redmoon's closing also came after a lawsuit alleged the company owed more than $60,000 in back rent.
Guild Row represents a rebirth for Lasko, who never stopped appreciating the behind-the-scenes work that's crucial to large-scale theatrical events.
"One of the greatest pleasures of doing Redmoon was seeing how connections were made between the most unlikely people because of the act of working side-by-side on something," Lasko said.
"Whether really mundane like painting a wall black or something really intricate and nuanced, the way you connect with people is different, I think, when it's through the activity of making things."