City’s Showbox Defense: “Save the Showbox” Law Doesn’t Require Saving the Showbox

Council member Kshama Sawant’s “Save the Showbox” rally and concert outside City Hall last Wednesday, one hour before the required public hearing on the legislation.

On Friday, City Attorney Pete Holmes quietly filed a response to a lawsuit by the owner of the building that currently houses the Showbox, seeking partial summary judgment (essentially, a partial dismissal) on a number of grounds. The most telling: The city maintains that the “#SavetheShowbox” legislation that made the Showbox, and only the Showbox, a part of the Pike Place Market Historical District does not require the building owner to keep the Showbox as a tenant. This completely contradicts the city council’s contention that the legislation had to be passed—and passed on an emergency basis, bypassing the usual public hearing process—right away in order to assure that the Showbox remains in business.

In its motion, the city attorney’s office argues that King County Superior Judge Mary Roberts “should dismiss Plaintiff’s compelled speech claim because the Ordinance does not, as Plaintiff alleges, ‘requir[e] continued performances at the Showbox.’ City law does not force Market property owners to perpetuate their existing uses.” This is quite a claim, considering the intense effort by Showbox fans, activists, and council members—particularly council member Kshama Sawant—to “Save the Showbox” on the grounds that it must be preserved specifically as a music venue in perpetuity. From an email Sawant sent to supporters just last week: “If we stay organized and mobilized, and unrelenting in our demand that Council make the Pike Place Historical District expansion permanent, then we can absolutely #SavetheShowbox!”)

And while the legislation itself is silent on whether the Showbox must be retained as a music venue specifically, it goes on at length about the value of the Showbox—a tenant using a rented space—as an irreplaceable cultural institution, the “loss” of which “would erode the historical and cultural value of the Pike Place Market neighborhood.” That’s pretty hard to square with the city attorney’s claim that the emergency Showbox preservation ordinance, which stopped a 44-story apartment development that would have provided around $5 million for affordable housing, had nothing to do with “saving the Showbox” as a music venue—unless you believe that what the council meant, when it drafted and passed the legislation, was that the unremarkable two-story building that houses the Showbox is what contributes cultural value to the neighborhood.

In its motion, the city attorney’s office argues the “Save the Showbox” “Ordinance does not, as Plaintiff alleges, ‘requir[e] continued performances at the Showbox.’ City law does not force Market property owners to perpetuate their existing uses.” This is quite a claim, considering the intense effort by Showbox fans, activists, and council members—particularly council member Kshama Sawant—to “Save the Showbox” on the grounds that it must be preserved specifically as a music venue in perpetuity.

The rest of the city attorney’s petition has to do with two basic issues. The first is whether the land owner, strip-club magnate Roger Forbes, has the right to sue under the land use petition act, and whether he has standing to claim that legislation barring him from developing his property constitutes an illegal property taking. The city argues that because Forbes and the developer to which he planned to sell his land, the Onni Group, didn’t file a permit application for the proposed 44-story development after initiating a pre-application process for the development on July 24, they haven’t exhausted every option for appeal. (This is also the argument the city makes in claiming that the reduction in Forbes’ property value can’t be considered a taking).  Of course, council members made it much less likely that Onni would file for a permit when they began discussing legislation to kill the development a few days later, and when they passed a new law in early August, on a fast-tracked “emergency” timeline, to prevent Onni from moving forward with its proposed apartment tower.

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The second is whether the city violated appearance of fairness rules that require council members to remain neutral (and not take public testimony) on quasi-judicial land use matters such as spot rezones, which the Showbox property owner claims the extension of the historical district was. The city claims that because Forbes didn’t file a permit application, the decision couldn’t have been a quasi-judicial land use decision, and instead is a mere “development regulation.”

Want the legalese version of all this? Check out the city’s full motion here.

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