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.

Emails Reveal Council Drafted Pro-Showbox Talking Points; City Lawyers Expressed Concerns About Landmark Status Based on “Popularity”

Emails obtained by the C Is for Crank reveal the extraordinary measures city council members and staff took to promote legislation that expanded the Pike Place Market Historical District to include the Showbox on First Avenue in downtown Seattle, scuttling a planned apartment building on the site and prompting a lawsuit claiming that the council violated numerous state and city laws when they voted to effectively downzone the Showbox property from 44 stories to two. The emails also reveal that the city attorney’s office advised the council against pursuing landmark status for the Showbox based on the “popularity” of the venue, and warned that making such a designation based on popular sentiment in favor of the Showbox, a tenant, could raise legal concerns about whether the decision was “arbitrary and capricious.”

Among other machinations, the emails reveal that the city council’s public information officer drafted talking points for Death Cab for Cutie singer Ben Gibbard, who testified in favor of the legislation in early August, based on comments he made to an NPR reporter about the Showbox the previous week. Gibbard was listed as one of the “advocates” for the legislation in an email from the spokeswoman, Dana Robinson Slote, suggesting actions council members could take to promote the legislation; the advocates were listed in contrast to the “‘pain point’ players” in the debate, which included Onni, the developer that planned to purchase the land and build a 440-unit apartment building; Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections director Nathan Torgelson; and Mayor Jenny Durkan.

In the email, Robinson Slote writes,

Ben— Thanks for your time by phone yesterday. As promised, below you’ll find suggested talking points for Monday’s Full Council meeting. In short, I summarized many of the themes from an interview you gave in June this year, which seems to fit well with the Resolution and Ordinance CM Sawant will introduce to #SaveTheShowbox

Also as discussed:

• I’ll plan to meet you on the first floor of the City Hall lobby approx. 1230p (Lyft can bring you to the 5th Ave entrance), and feel free to call if I can help guide you here.

• We’ll meet first with Sawant for fewer than 15:00; and,

• Then I’ll take you to O’Brien (Ballard, Fremont) and Herbold (West Seattle), followed by Citywide elected Gonzalez & Mosqueda (and the remaining Councilmembers Johnson, Juarez, Bagshaw and Harrell) as time allows. Public comment begins at 2:00 p.m., so we can decide in advance if you’d still like to speak (and sign you in) or watch from the Green Room. Thank you once again for sharing your time and talent on this important occasion and for this critical cause.   

Slote then lays out a full page of potential talking points, many of which focus on Gibbard’s experience growing into middle age in Seattle after moving here and falling in love with the city in the 1990s.

Kshama Sawant and  her staff used private gmail accounts, rather than their official city of Seattle email addresses, to discuss the Showbox legislation and the lobbying campaign to promote it, which was run out of Sawant’s office.

Robinson Slote says she did not give Gibbard special treatment during the Showbox debate, and points out that the “talking points” she wrote for Gibbard were based on his own previous comments. Gibbard ended up writing his own testimony, which differed significantly from the draft  Robinson Slote provided. However, the council’s solicitous treatment of Gibbard—which also included shepherding him from council member to council member and offering to host him in the council’s “green room,” away from the general public, during the council meeting—is not the standard treatment accorded to most members of the public, who must line up to speak, write their own testimony, and sit or stand in council chambers along with the rest of the general public.

Also unusual is the fact that legislation sponsor Kshama Sawant and her staff used private Gmail accounts, rather than their official city of Seattle email addresses, to discuss the Showbox legislation and the lobbying campaign to promote it, which was largely run out of Sawant’s office using city resources. It is standard practice for elected officials and public staffers to use their city email addresses to do public business, both because this practice just makes sense (all the other council members and staffers who are cc’d on the email use their public @seattle.gov addresses for all communications), and because private emails can more easily be withheld from public disclosure. If a journalist or member of the public requests email communications from an elected official or government staffer, it’s up to that staffer to volunteer their private emails for disclosure; the city’s public disclosure officers have no authority to go searching through people’s private email accounts. Additionally, public emails are archived by the city; private emails are not.  Sawant and her staffers’ email addresses all use the naming convention Firstnameatcouncil@gmail.com.

Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission director Wayne Barnett says the city’s ethics code is silent on the issue of whether city officials and employees are allowed to do city business using personal email addresses. The city IT department’s policy on use of city resources, however, does prohibit “The use of personally owned technology for conducting City business, where official City records are created but not maintained by the City.”

In another email, Sawant’s staff discusses the wording of a poster, ultimately produced by Sawant’s council office, urging the council to vote to “save the Showbox” by including it in the historic district. An early version of the poster included the suggestion to “Call in sick – go protest!”

The fact that Sawant and her staff, as well as Robinson Slote, were discussing how to influence the legislation could—if the inclusion of the Showbox in the historic district is deemed to be a spot downzone of the property—give the owners of the property important evidence in their case that the council and staffers engaged in illegal “ex parte” discussions and failed to remain impartial on a zoning decision.

In another exchange that could help the Showbox’s owners make the case that the council intervened improperly on a zoning decision, the city’s own attorney cautions against seeking landmark status for the Showbox based on the “popularity” of the venue. (The inclusion of the Showbox in the historic district is different from landmark status, but the emails demonstrate that the city’s attorneys cautioned against such a political approach to historic designation.) In an email dated July 31, assistant city attorney Bob Tobin told city council member Lisa Herbold that it would be “premature” for the city council to “take the position that the [Showbox] qualifies as a landmark, without first allowing the (expert) Board’s process to play out, and without applying the standards in the code, seems premature at best. From a legal perspective it is preferable for the Council to consider the designation decision in due course, pursuant to City ordinances. And certainly if a resolution is being considered, it shouldn’t suggest (as CM Sawant’s letter apparently did) that designation should be based upon popularity rather than the legal standards in the code, or that the City should apply the code to exert ‘leverage’ over the applicant. Those types of references invite legal challenges based upon the ‘arbitrary and capricious’ nature of the Council’s ultimate decision.” The Showbox owners’ lawsuit, of course, claims precisely that the council’s decision to include the property in the Pike Place Market Historical District was “out of step with the founding of the Pike Place Market redevelopment and is the definition of arbitrary and capricious.”

The city’s own attorneys advised the council against making the argument that the Showbox should be granted formal landmark status because of its “popularity” with the public: “And certainly if a resolution is being considered, it shouldn’t suggest (as CM Sawant’s letter apparently did) that designation should be based upon popularity rather than the legal standards in the code, or that the City should apply the code to exert ‘leverage’ over the applicant. Those types of references invite legal challenges based upon the ‘arbitrary and capricious’ nature of the Council’s ultimate decision.”

One day after sending the email to council member about landmark status, Tobin responded to an email from Sawant staffer Ted Virdone, who had posed several questions about what would happen if the city included the Showbox in the Pike Place Market Historical District, rather than seeking to make it a landmark on its own. Virdone’s questions are in italics.

Hi Ted. Here is a quick response to your questions below, in red.

  1. Is it possible to extend the boundary of the historical district to cover a property if the property owner objects? I believe the answer is yes, as owners typically can’t veto regulatory measures.
  2. If the Historical District is extended to cover this property, could it effect this development, or would the develop be vested in some way that would trump the procedures of the historical district? I believe that vesting of such a project would likely occur at the time that the Design Review process begins (SMC 23.76.026), and I doubt that process has begun. If the district were enlarged before the projects vests, then the applicant would be subject to historic district regulations, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the Showbox would be preserved.
  3. Are there any other considerations we should be aware of? There likely are, but I would need more focus on your questions and goals. Bob

Five days later, Virdone’s boss, Sawant, introduced legislation to extend the Pike Place Market Historical District to include the Showbox and about a dozen other properties on the east side of First Avenue. After property owners ultimately objected, that legislation was scaled back to encompass (and effectively downzone) just the Showbox property. Less than a month after that, the owners of the Showbox sued the city, seeking $40 million in compensation for legislation that, they say, drastically devalued their property.

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Lawsuit: Council Violated Numerous Laws When It “Saved the Showbox”

In a move so predictable it hardly even merits an I-told-you-so (but I did tell you so), the owners of the building on First Avenue that houses the Showbox have sued the city in response to a land-use decision that effectively downzones their property from 44 stories to two, arguing (among other things) that the move constitutes an illegal spot zone and a taking of private property worth $40 million—the sum for which the owners had planned to sell the land.

To unpack the story—which David Kroman broke on Crosscut earlier today—it helps to recap a bit of the whirlwind history that led us to this point. Last month, news broke that a Vancouver developer called Onni Group planned to tear down the Showbox and redevelop the property as a 440-foot-tall apartment building with 442 units, which could have included a new ground-floor music venue. The city council had just upzoned  the property as part of the city’s Mandatory Housing Affordability plan, which grants developers in some areas, including downtown, the right to build taller and denser in exchange for building or funding affordable housing. However, a public outcry—spearheaded by music fans and amplified by anti-development council member Kshama Sawant, who saw the controversy as an opportunity to stop a “greedy developer” from profiting from a new high-end development—prompted “emergency” legislation that expanded the Pike Place Market Historical District to include the Showbox property for at least the next ten months. (The property is owned by strip-club magnate Roger Forbes, who also owns the Deja Vu Showgirls club down the street; the Showbox itself is operated by a tenant, AEG Live, which describes itself as “the world’s second largest presenter of live music and entertainment events.”)  Initially, Sawant proposed a dramatic expansion of the historical district that would have effectively downzoned a dozen existing properties and forced property owners to obtain permission from a historical commission before renting to new tenants or making any visible changes to their property, but that was eventually scaled back and only the Showbox property got the “historical” designation. The new rules last for ten months—long enough for the city to decide whether to extend them and make the two-story Showbox building a permanent part of Pike Place Market, and long enough (or so the “Save the Showbox” crowd hoped) to convince Onni to go away and for supporters to put together a plan to preserve the space as a music venue in perpetuity.

That brings us to the present, and the lawsuit filed last week. The suit claims that the city council violated the owners’ property rights by passing a spot rezone that reduces its value by tens of millions of dollars; that they violated  the state’s Appearance of Fairness Doctrine, which requires officials like council members to keep an open mind on so-called quasi-judicial land use decisions (like zoning changes for a specific property) until after all the evidence has been presented and to make their deliberations in public, not behind closed doors; that the inclusion of the Showbox in a historical district designed to protect farmers and small-scale artisans is “the definition of arbitrary and capricious”; and that the “illegal spot zone” violates the city’s comprehensive plan, which calls for more density in places like downtown Seattle.  “The Decision [to expand the historical district to include just the Showbox] bears no rational relationship to promoting a legitimate public interest; it singles a small area out of a larger area for use and development restrictions that are not in accordance with similarly situated neighboring properties and not in accordance with the City’s Comprehensive Plan.”

The fairness doctrine allows council members to have a general opinion on land use questions; it doesn’t allow them to go into a land use discussion with their minds made up, and it certainly doesn’t allow them to actively campaign on behalf of one side or another in a quasi-judicial land use debate.

The argument that the council’s vote to put the Showbox in the Market historical district represents a spot rezone—that is, that it effectively turns a property with a 440-foot height limit into one with a limit of just two stories, the height of the existing Showbox building— is critical. If the court accepts this argument, they may also be inclined to accept the property owners’ argument that council members, particularly Sawant, violated the law by discussing the decision outside the public eye, and participated in a campaign in favor of the rezone. The fairness doctrine allows council members to have a general opinion on land use questions; it doesn’t allow them to go into a land use discussion with their minds made up, and it certainly doesn’t allow them to actively campaign on behalf of one side or another in a quasi-judicial land use debate. (If this argument sounds vaguely familiar, you probably remember it from Strippergate—a scandal that contributed to the defeat of two city council members who violated quasi-judicial rules when they discussed, and voted for, a rezone to allow strip-club owner Frank Colicurcio to expand the parking lot at his Rick’s strip club in North Seattle. In an odd turn of fate, Showbox property owner Forbes purchased Rick’s from Colacurcio in 2011.)

The lawsuit echoes a point that I have made numerous times at The C for Crank about basing policy on the wishes of a vocal few—in this case, music fans and industry employees who sign petitions and hold signs that say “Save the Showbox” and write songs bemoaning the inexorable fact that cities change:  “When politicians cater to populist calls – whether those calls are ‘lock her up,’ ‘build the wall’ ‘ban Muslims,’ or ‘Save the Showbox’ – civil and other rights are placed at risk. Populism, and politicians’ desires to appease their loudest constituents and generate headlines must, however, yield to the rule of law. Luckily for those who prefer protection of civil, constitutional and property rights, the courts exist to preserve, protect and enforce the rule of law.”  Indeed, the suit argues that the council caved to public pressure in order “to enhance its political popularity” and “enacted an unlawful ordinance that was intended to, and did, place all the burden of providing a public music venue to City residents onto the shoulders of a private landowner. The ordinance greatly and instantly devalued the property and will scuttle its redevelopment unless the City’s improper spot down zone is declared unlawful.”

The owners of the Showbox property don’t mention race and social justice in their lawsuit. But had they done so, I suspect that the city would have trouble making the case that protecting the Showbox, a venue where tickets typically start at $35 once all of AEG’s “convenience” and other fees are included, advances its race and social justice goals. Particularly when doing so means foregoing $5 million to build housing for people who can’t afford $35 concert tickets.

The complaint also takes a swing at the notion—which several council members, particularly Lisa Herbold, made explicit during the debate over the historical designation—that the squat, repeatedly remodeled Showbox building itself is “historic.” The city, the lawsuit notes, hired a consultant to consider the Showbox for historic landmark status in 2007, but found that the building lacked “any redeeming landmark features.” This, the complaint continues, “was partly because the building had been remodeled during its many uses in the past including as a comedy stage, an adult entertainment arcade, a furniture store and a bingo hall.” When Showbox preservationists talk about “silencing the ghosts of Seattle’s history,” as one of the venue’s bartenders did last month, is that the history they’re thinking of?

One final note. Ordinarily, when the city makes land-use decisions, it puts those decisions through a rigorous Race and Social Justice Initiative (RSJI) analysis to determine what impacts the decision might have, positive or negative, on marginalized and low-income communities. As far as I can tell, the city did no such analysis when it decided to effectively downzone the Showbox block—a decision that also meant foregoing about $5 million in funding for affordable housing under MHA. The owners of the Showbox property don’t mention race and social justice in their lawsuit, perhaps because such goals are hard to quantify (and harder still in the absence of the usual analysis). But had they done so, I suspect that the city would have trouble making the case that protecting the Showbox, a venue where tickets typically start at $35 once all of AEG’s “convenience” and other fees are included, advances its race and social justice goals. Particularly when doing so means foregoing $5 million to build housing for people who can’t afford $35 concert tickets.

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The Showbox Is “Saved.” Now What?

When I lived in Austin, back in the 1990s, there was this bar called the Cedar Door that kept getting displaced by development. The proprietors just couldn’t catch a break: As soon as they opened in a new location, it seemed, some developer would come along and announce a new condo or apartment or office building and the Cedar Door had to go. By the time I lived in Austin, the bar’s peripatetic nature was part of local lore: The bar that never stays in one place for long.

Let me tell you another story: There was this club, also in Austin , called Liberty Lunch, where I saw some of the most memorable shows of my young adult life, including the Pixies, Failure, Clutch, and a bunch of other bands whose names are lost to time. In the late ’90s, despite a concerted local effort to save it, Liberty Lunch shut down—a victim, it was said, of development run amok. (You can still visit it virtually, on the “I Still Miss Liberty Lunch” Facebook page.) Many of the bands I saw there are now on their second or third reunion tours, playing at $30-and-up venues like the Showbox.

A final story, from Seattle. A beloved cultural institution, the Museum of History and Industry, was forced from its location in Montlake by the need to rebuild the floating bridge across SR-520. The old bridge was, in a way, itself a victim of development: Massive suburban growth that state highway planners said necessitated a wider bridge to carry commuters swiftly back and forth across Lake Washington. The museum struck a deal with the city and state, and opened in a new (and arguably more apt location): South Lake Union, where old history rubs shoulders with new industry.

What did the city council vote for today, when it voted to “Save the Showbox” by making it part of the Pike Place Market Historical District?  To the mostly middle-aged crowd who testified about the value of the venue, the vote was about the musical heritage and cultural future of Seattle. To the Pike Place Market preservationists who see the Showbox debate as an opportunity to relitigate the city’s decision to upzone First Avenue to allow taller buildings—an upzone that today’s vote partly reversed—the decision was about protecting the “entrance to the market” from towers near the Market, which they have long opposed. (The Showbox, notably, was not included in the Pike Place Market historical district in 1971, when the district was created after a lengthy citizens’ effort to save the market from development, even though it had been around, at that point, for more than four decades.) To residents of the Newmark Tower condos on Second Avenue, the vote was an opportunity to preserve their views of Elliott Bay and limit traffic in the alley behind their building. “Past city councils shouldn’t have upzoned,” attorney and Newmark condo owner Dan Merkle said. He wore a “Save the Showbox” T-shirt. (Opponents of theoretical “luxury apartments,” in one of the day’s many ironies, were in league with the owners of actual luxury condos.) And to density advocates like council member Teresa Mosqueda, it was a symbolic vote to “protect” one downtown block that came with an implicit bargain: If people who showed up over the past week to “Save the Showbox” really want to preserve cultural institutions and build affordable housing, she said, they need to show up for future debates about development, too—to advocate for more density all over the city.

The council has shown that they will overturn major land-use policy decisions that took years to develop in response to concerted public pressure from vocal interest groups, without regard for whether doing so violates the spirit of prior land-use policies that resulted from lengthy, and often hard-fought, public processes. This week, it was the Showbox. Next month, it could be  an industrial business that stands in the way of a bike lane, or a single-family house whose preservation could prevent the development of dense housing in a neighborhood.

The legislation the council adopted today adds the Showbox property, owned by strip-club magnate Roger Forbes, to the Pike Place Market Historical District for the next ten months so the city can “review the historic significance ot the Showbox theater, study the relationship between the Showbox theater and the Pike Place Market, consider amendments to the Pike Place Market Historical District Design Guidelines related to the Showbox, draft legislation, conduct outreach to stakeholders, and conduct State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) Review on permanent expansion of the Historical District, as appropriate.” In plain English, that means that the city has effectively downzoned the block on which the Showbox is located from about 450 feet to its current height of two stories on an “emergency” basis while the city decides whether to include the Showbox in the district permanently. Inclusion in the historical district means that any alterations to the building—from the tenants who occupy the first floor to the lighting and signage—will have to be approved by the historical commission that oversees the market. (Proponents have argued that this will force the Showbox to remain a music venue in perpetuity, but the city cannot legally force a private business to stay in business or renew its lease.) For now, the legislation effectively precludes demolition of the Showbox and prevents the building’s owner, Roger Forbes, from selling the property to Onni Group, the developer that wants to build a 44-story apartment tower on the site.

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In theory, the legislation provides some breathing room for the city to work out a deal to preserve the physical structure that houses the Showbox—a two-story unreinforced masonry building—while allowing Onni to build its tower on top of the venue. However, as Mosqueda acknowledged after the “this vote today makes a negotiated resolution more challenging.” Even if Onni and Forbes want to reach such a resolution, building a new tower on top of the Showbox itself may not be possible, and could be prohibitively expensive if it is. At today’s meeting, council members repeatedly cited a project built by developer Kevin Daniels that saved the now 111-year-old First United Methodist Church sanctuary on Fifth and Marion as an example of preservation that allowed a new development to co-exist with a historical structure. But that development did not involve actually placing a new building on top of the church—and it cost an estimated $40 million. (Daniels has said that from a purely financial perspective, he regrets saving the church building.)

In any case, neither Onni nor Forbes has indicated that they plan to spend tens of millions of dollars to “save” a music venue in which neither party is actually invested, in any sense of that word. Moreover, the uncertainty created by today’s legislation may lead Onni to abandon the project. That could “save” the Showbox until its lease ends in two years, but does not guarantee its continued existence; AEG, the multinational company that operates the Showbox, could decide to leave, or Forbes, the building’s owner, could decline to renew their lease or raise the rent to a  prohibitive level.

Would anyone who was at city hall today declare victory if the Showbox was “saved,” only to become a new Tom Douglas restaurant, or an actual museum? Or if it ends up sitting empty, the victim of economic forces that can’t be altered by a million signatures on change.org petitions?

Or Forbes could sue. On Sunday, the law firm that represents Forbes, Byrnes Keller Cromwell, sent a letter to city attorney Pete Holmes and council president Bruce Harrell noting that Forbes has the legal right to redevelop the Showbox property as a high-rise; in fact, the lawyers note, the city implicitly endorsed its redevelopment when it upzoned the land in both 2006 and 2016, when the zoning capacity of downtown Seattle was increased as part of the city’s Mandatory Housing Affordability program. “That zoning and up-zoning were and are entirely consistent with the City’s high-density urban plan and goal of promoting affordable housing,” the letter says. (If Onni does not move forward with its development, the city will  forego about $5 million that would have gone toward affordable housing under MHA.)

The letter continues:

As you are aware, property owners, the City and the courts all have respective rights, obligations and oversight related to the significant economic interests that arise from real property and re-zoning issues. Just this last Thursday, the State Supreme Court unanimously issued an opinion on land use rights in a case where a property owner was not given a fair opportunity to use a property. [That case upheld a decision finding that Thurston County illegally delayed the sale of a piece of land owned by the Port of Tacoma and awarded total damages of $12 million].  Of course, you know that case does not stand alone, but is part of a larger body of state and federal law addressing these kinds of significant economic and constitutional issues.

It is important for all parties involved to be heard fairly and accorded consideration and for rights to be recognized and protected. Process should be afforded and both procedural and substantive fairness observed.  We understand that a more considered  approach may be underway for the Monday, August 13, 2018, City Council meeting at which these issues are to be considered, and we sincerely appreciate a path toward working through the issues in a way that avoids unnecessary entanglements, missteps and interference with contractual and other expectations of the parties involved.

Whatever ultimately happens with the Showbox, the ramifications of today’s vote will be far-reaching. Although council member Mosqueda told me after the vote that she did not intend for the decision to set any kind of precedent, that’s exactly what it does. The council has shown that they will overturn major land-use policy decisions that took years to develop in response to concerted public pressure from vocal interest groups, without regard for whether doing so violates the spirit of prior land-use policies that resulted from lengthy, and often hard-fought, public processes. This week, it was the Showbox. Next month, it could be  an industrial business that stands in the way of a bike lane, or a single-family house whose preservation could prevent the development of dense housing in a neighborhood. For all Mosqueda’s optimism that the “Save the Showbox” crowd will turn out in the future to advocate for density all over the city, it’s important to note that council members who often advocate against density, including Lisa Herbold and Sawant, see the same people as an opportunity to advance their own anti-development agendas.

At today’s meeting, while Herbold was talking about the need to save the physical structure of the Showbox, rather than preserving its spirit by rebuilding or revamping the venue, someone shouted from the back. “The soul is in the walls, it’s in the stage, it’s in the floor!” But he was wrong.  The Showbox isn’t the Lincoln Memorial, or La Sagrada Familia, or the Louvre. Its cultural relevance comes not from the squat, architecturally unremarkable building in which it is located, but from the music that has been made, and continues to be made, inside its walls. And cultural institutions sometimes move, or are rebuilt, or even close only to reopen later in a different form. (Moe’s, a once-shuttered institution whose rebirth as Neumos helped to spur the reinvention of the Pike-Pine corridor as a nightlife district, springs to mind.) Would anyone who was at city hall today declare victory if the Showbox was “saved,” only to become a new Tom Douglas restaurant, or an actual museum? Or if it ends up sitting empty, the victim of economic forces that can’t be altered by a million signatures on change.org petitions? Twenty years ago, Liberty Lunch was replaced by a generic office building. But Austin remained a music destination, largely on the strength of the new venues that emerged on the other side of town after the Lunch shut down. Cities rarely grow and improve by preserving their culture in amber. Almost always, they do so by letting things change.

What “Save the Showbox” Really Means

The effort to “Save the Showbox” moved deeper into the murky waters of historic preservation earlier today with the introduction of a proposal, sponsored by council member Kshama Sawant, to expand the Pike Place Market Historic District on an “interim,” two-year basis.  The proposal would effectively kill plans by the Vancouver-based developer Onni to replace the two-story building the Showbox occupies on First Avenue with 442 apartments, and force the city to forego roughly $5 million Onni would have had to pay to build affordable housing under the city’s Mandatory Housing Affordability law—a law Sawant opposed.

“This is what the working people of Seattle want,” Sawant said today, pointing to a change.org petition to “Save the Showbox” that has garnered some 90,000 signatures from around the country. Sawant-branded red-and-white signs emphasized this point, as did an email from Sawant’s official list urging “our movement” to—per usual—”pack city hall” to “force the Council to listen to our movement’s demands.”

If we buy the notion that “the working people of Seattle” are preoccupied with the desire to save a venue where tickets typically go for $30 , $40, or more (plus $10 a ticket in nonrefundable “convenience fees”), it’s still worth asking: What are the working people of Seattle getting in this bargain? What does Sawant’s proposal actually do?

In 2016, a parking garage in the Pioneer Square Historic Preservation District was “saved” from becoming an office building after condo owners who would have lost their water views convinced the Pioneer Square Historic Preservation board the parking structure was historic and must be preserved.

First, Sawant’s proposal would compress the typically months-long process of expanding the boundaries of a designated historic district (in this case, the one created to preserve Pike Place Market in 1971) into just one week in order to prevent the property from vesting to Onni, the Vancouver-based developer that wants to turn the property into a mixed-use apartment tower. “I’m convinced that there is a reason to rush,” Sawant said today, adding that the council rushed through a repeal of the head tax as a point of comparison. The council agreed to move the legislation through committee this week, for possible consideration next Monday afternoon. (The lone committee hearing on Sawant’s proposal will be in Sally Bagshaw’s finance and neighborhoods committee in council chambers on Wednesday at 2).

Support

Digging into the details, the legislation would roughly double the geographic area on First Avenue in which businesses and property owners are subject to strict, legally binding controls on what they can do in and to their properties. Most speakers this afternoon didn’t talk about historic preservation or landmark status or the implications of taking rules designed to protect small farmers and artisans and applying them to buildings that most people would never consider part of Pike Place Market. But the council needs to talk about those things before they move forward with Sawant’s sweeping legislation, because it will have implications far beyond the Showbox, and for long after the crowds that show up to “Save the Showbox” have moved on.

The Pike Place Market Historical District, and the Pike Place Market Historical Commission, were established by ordinance in 1971 to “promote the educational, cultural, farming, marketing, other economic resources, and the general welfare; and to assure the harmonious, orderly, and efficient growth and development of the municipality.” The law requires a special “certificate of approval” for “any change to any building, structure or other visible element,” a broad mandate that gives the commission control over everything from the wattage of external lighting outside a business to the color of the paint on the exterior walls to the lettering on its signage. (A full list of requirements and processes for approving changes within the district is available on the city’s website.)

The law requires a special “certificate of approval” for “any change to any building, structure or other visible element,” a broad mandate that gives the commission control over everything from the wattage of external lighting outside a business to the color of the paint on the exterior walls to the lettering on its signage.

And, of course, any new development within a historical district is subject to a far more intense level of scrutiny than an existing business that wants to sell to a different owner (which requires the prospective new business owner to get a whole new certificate of approval after convincing the commission that they will abide by all the prior restrictions)  or add an awning (which falls under “Major Structures and Architectural Elements” and involves an approval process). In recent years, at least one building—a parking garage near the waterfront, in the Pioneer Square Historic Preservation District—was “saved” from becoming an office building after condo owners in a building across the street who would have lost their water views convinced the Pioneer Square Historic Preservation board the parking structure was historic and must be preserved. As it happens, Sawant’s proposed expansion area includes two parking lots, one right next to the Showbox, where any development would block the view of people who live at the Newmark Tower, a luxury condo building. If the parking lot, which currently serves the Showbox and the Showgirls Deja Vu strip club, is “preserved” as part of the district, count on the residents of the Newmark to object to any building that blocks their “historic” waterfront views.

The Newmark condos rise behind what could become a “historic” parking lot. Historic district status would give residents an opportunity to object to development that blocks their views.

Some other buildings and businesses that would fall into the newly expanded Pike Place Market Historical District include:

The Showgirls strip club and Fantasy Unltd. store, whose front windows advertise “low-price DVDs” and whose presence on First Ave. is itself a historical artifact—a holdover from the time when First Avenue was known for adult theaters, flop houses, and peep shows, not high-end jewelry designers and fancy tchotchke shops.

Smoke Plus Inc., which shares the First Avenue frontage of the three-story Hahn Building with a a 2-for-$10 t-shirt shop. This building, which also houses the Green Tortoise Hostel, is already slated for redevelopment as a hotel, but that proposal is controversial and remains under review. Opponents of the development have argued that demolishing the building would destroy the “market entrance.” Historic designation could give hotel opponents another tool to protest that development.

The 98 Union condo building, built in 1985 at the south end of the market:

Another parking lot, this one backing up to the Chase Bank tower on Second Avenue.

This Starbucks, which would potentially run into restrictions the historical commission places on duplicate businesses and chain stores within the market, where there is already a Starbucks. The Pike Place Market Historical District bars “multiple ownership” of more than one business in the Market district and does not allow any chains or franchises, and carves out an explicit exemption for businesses (like Starbucks and Sur La Table) “that originated in the Market and whose owners or controllers later opened another location or locations outside the Market.” (The original Starbucks was located at 2000 Western and “re”-opened at its current location in 1976).

And the brand-new Thompson Hotel at the north end of the Market expansion area—a gleaming 12-story hotel designed by Olson Kundig that the New York Times called a “stylish … hotel whose location can’t be beat.”

Designation as part of the Pike Place Market Historical District wouldn’t prevent any of the businesses in these newly “historic” buildings from closing down or changing their business model, nor would it prohibit new businesses from opening up. But the designation would impose strict controls on how the buildings can be used in the future, whether they can be remodeled, and how and whether they can be redeveloped. If the Thompson Hotel, which just opened last year, wanted to update its signage, for example, it would have to abide by five detailed rules imposed on all businesses in the district, the first of which is “Signs should be simple, clear, of modest size, and painted with plain lettering styles.” Adding a sidewalk cafe, modifying the facade, or painting an interior wall that happens to be visible from the sidewalk would all require approval from the commission.

As for the Showbox itself: “Saving” the building—even stipulating that the interior of the building be preserved in its current form, which would effectively require any future owners to keep it open as a concert venue or let it sit empty in perpetuity—won’t necessarily save the Showbox itself. As my colleague Josh Feit pointed out last week, it’s the nature of thriving cities to change, not stay the same. If people my age, or the age of most of the people who testified in favor of Sawant’s legislation today, use the strong arm of government to “save” our favorite institutions (and make no mistake, the Showbox is no longer a place you can go to pay a $5 cover to see an up-and-coming band, if it ever was), the unintended consequences may go beyond forcing a bunch of other businesses to learn to live under a newly restrictive historic-preservation regime. It can also turn the city into a museum commemorating the youth of people who are in their 40s and 50s, at the expense of people in their 20s and 30s who may want to start new businesses—future beloved institutions—of their own. Worst case, Showbox operator AEG Live—whose lease for the venue runs out in two years—shuts the place down on their own, leaving a very expensive empty room for some other company to try to fill with a business that meets all of the historic district’s stringent requirements. There may be a way to “save the Showbox”—some have suggested buying it from AEG and running it as a Vera Project-style nonprofit, or striking a deal with Onni to reopen the venue in its new tower—but historic preservation is the bluntest possible instrument, and inevitably leads to some collateral damage.

 

City Considers Protections for “Legacy Businesses”

This post originally appeared on Next City.

Wedgwood Salad

Image via Serious Eats.

The Wedgwood Broiler, in a neighborhood of single-family bungalows in far North Seattle, is a blue-collar bar and restaurant that has been around for more than 50 years, and has the look of a place last renovated sometime in the 1980s. There’s the green wall-to-wall carpet, the mauve-and-mint patterned wallpaper in the ladies’ room, and the lighting set to “permanent twilight.” Smoking has been banned in Seattle bars for years now, but the place still looks like it reeks of smoke. The menu — grilled steaks, hamburgers and salads with Cheez-Its for croutons — is purely vintage, except for the 2016 prices.

The Broiler is the kind of old-school place that people mention when they talk fondly about “old Seattle” — basic, rough-hewn, unpretentious. It’s also a member of an increasingly endangered species: Businesses that thrived in a pre-tech-boom Seattle are being replaced by sleek doggie-friendly brewpubs and high-end doughnut shops. Old institutions, many of them in low-slung buildings along once-sleepy commercial strips, are disappearing amid new development.

Seattle City Council Member Lisa Herbold wants to make sure businesses like the Broiler — and Husky Deli in West Seattle, Scarecrow Video near the University of Washington and the Ballard Smoke Shop dive bar in northwest Seattle — don’t go the way of the Sunset Bowl, Piecora’s Pizza and other beloved local institutions that have closed in the last decade. To that end, she’s proposed a “legacy business” program that would identify such neighborhood institutions and provide them with financial or regulatory support to help them survive as Seattle continues to boom.

“It’s important that we preserve a cultural bridge to our past,” Herbold says.

Her idea, which is still in its infancy — the city council just allocated $100,000 to study what a legacy business program might look like — is loosely based on a similar program in San Francisco, which has also lost older businesses to new development. Voters passed a proposition for it by a margin of 57 to 43 percent in 2015. Businesses that are 30 years or older, “have contributed to their neighborhood’s history,” and agree to maintain their identity can apply for placement on the city’s Legacy Business Registry.

Once the mayor or a member of the Board of Supervisors nominates a business, and the Small Business Commission approves the nomination, the business becomes eligible for grants of up to $50,000 to help with rent, renovations or other costs. (Building owners could also get grants to help subsidize below-market rents.) So far, about 300 businesses have qualified, and the program — which got off to a slow start, apparently in part because the initial legislation didn’t fund a staffer to administer the grants — is on track to fund grants of about $3 million a year.

At this point, Herbold’s Seattle legacy business program doesn’t include a dedicated funding source. Instead, it would be administered through the city’s Office of Economic Development, which would provide help with marketing, regulatory compliance and relocation costs for businesses forced to move to a new location by development.

“I want to be more creative around the types of support that eventually might be available, rather than to presuppose taxpayer funds,” Herbold says. In her view, there are “forces that are creating impacts, and communities that are feeling the impacts, and I just want to create a space for a small handful of eligible businesses to have the city as a partner in facilitating conversations between them.”

Skeptics of Herbold’s proposal suggest that development is inevitable, and that protecting old businesses may come at the cost of encouraging new ones. And they point out that, in Seattle at least, “preservation” efforts are often smokescreens for anti-development activism. For example, one business that made the “threatened” list in Herbold’s survey was the West Seattle PCC Market — an outpost of a local grocery chain that opened in the late 1980s, and which happens to be the site of a hotly disputed new mixed-use development.

“This is all about redevelopment,” says Roger Valdez, a local lobbyist for small developers and the founder of Smart Growth Seattle. “If you’re talking about a business closing because the owner doesn’t know how to run a business, is the city really going to intervene in that situation? I think it’s not fair to be picking winners and losers in the realm of small businesses.” Herbold says just as firmly: “This is not about development. But I want development to consider the things that are important to our communities.”

One of the challenges Herbold and other advocates of legacy business protections face is defining what counts as a “legacy” business. David Campos, the San Francisco supervisor who spearheaded the legacy business project in that city, says the criteria they use are “intangible and very neighborhood-specific,” and Herbold says Seattle’s definition may be similarly subjective.

“It is really important that we don’t have a legacy business template, but rather, that each community has the ability to identify what’s important for them,” she says. “Development happens, growth happens, but the people who made this city what it is are still here.”

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