Editor’s note: I’m excited to introduce a regular new column for The C Is for Crank, by my former colleague at PubliCola and The Stranger, Josh Feit, in which Josh issues a verdict on the week’s news. For his debut column, Josh argues that we might not be having a debate over whether to “save the Showbox”—a club in a two-story building in the densest part of downtown Seattle—if Seattle’s zoning laws didn’t make housing illegal almost everywhere in the city.
After the Daily Journal of Commerce and other local news sites reported that the Onni Group, a Vancouver, BC-based developer, plans to tear down the the Showbox and build a 440-foot, 442-unit apartment tower with ground-level retail, social media blew up, lamenting yet another victim of Seattle’s building boom. Calls to save the Showbox, the storied downtown music venue at 1st and Pike, quickly followed, including the possibility of declaring the building, with its iconic marquee, a historic landmark. Even former Guns ‘n Roses bassist Duff McKagan joined the outcry, telling KIRO radio: “Music is a big part of the soul of our city, and the Showbox is at the center of that.”
My flip reaction to the news? If Seattle didn’t have strict zoning laws that make it impossible to build freely in other neighborhoods, maybe developers like Onni wouldn’t have to tear down beloved downtown institutions like the Showbox.
But here’s my real take. It’s fine that developers are planning on replacing the two-story building that houses the Showbox with a mixed residential and commercial building. In fact, it’s a net positive. Here’s why: Seattle’s new Mandatory Housing Affordability program, which makes developers either build a certain percentage of affordable housing on site or contribute to an affordable housing fund, means new downtown housing generates serious cash for affordable housing. In the specific case of Onni’s plans for the Showbox, MHA’s upzone requires a $10.85 per square foot payment toward affordable housing, which means the project will generate somewhere around five million dollars for affordable housing. (Under the city’s affordable housing plan, Onni also has the option to build affordable housing on site.)<
And if 442 fancy market-rate apartments still isn’t your idea of good development, keep in mind, downtown Seattle, from Pioneer Square to Belltown, is already home to 10,000 affordable subsidized units, more than 35 percent of Seattle’s total affordable housing stock. For one neighborhood to provide a plurality of all the city’s affordable housing stock is remarkable.
For a city that’s facing a housing affordability crisis (and where market-rate housing hasn’t kept up with our population boom), the Onni development is a win.
No, low-income people can’t afford to live in brand-new high-income housing downtown. But if no one is building housing for the tens of thousands of workers who are moving here, those people start to compete for existing housing, driving up rents down the line. The only way out of this spiral is to build more housing. And: Today’s market-rate housing is tomorrow’s middle-income housing is tomorrow’s “naturally occurring affordable housing.”
Another thing I like about Onni’s plans is that they call for just one parking spot for every five units— 88 parking spots for 442 apartments. In a city that has 1.6 million parking spaces—5.2 per household, 3.7 per car—Onni’s downsized garage is a welcome change in priorities, matching the city’s future vision for a pro-pedestrian and transit oriented downtown.
Arts and cultural spaces are vital to cities—music and art, with lines stretching around the block, represent important political and community assets for any town. (Seeing avant garde R&B crooner Serpentwithfeet at Barboza last month was one of my favorite nights in Seattle in 2018 so far.)
But Showbox or no Showbox, Seattle is currently jammed with cultural spaces (1,132 of them), including about 120 music venues.
In short, saving the Showbox won’t make you 21 again, but there plenty of places for 21-year-olds to go in 2018.
The outcry to save the Showbox is just more nostalgic pique from a public in the throes of anxiety about change. Preserving memories is not the job of cities. Successful cities are the ones that constantly build new memories. The simple secret to doing that: Stop living in the past.