The J Is for Judge: Save the Past, Jeopardize the Future

It turns out it wasn’t a NIMBY uprising in Seattle’s single-family neighborhoods that successfully blitzed new housing development in Seattle. Embraced by our supposedly progressive council and Mayor Jenny Durkan, a reactionary stand in the heart of downtown Seattle to save a two-story music venue, the Showbox, has set the precedent for successful self-centered obstructionism.

In 2017, the city council passed a series of six neighborhood upzones: five in densely populated commercial/residential Urban Centers  including downtown, South Lake Union, Chinatown International District, Uptown,  and the University District, and one in a  Residential Urban Village, 23rd & Union-Jackson, a less dense but still bustling multifamily combo residential/commercial zone. The unanimous council votes to upzone these multifamily, transit-rich neighborhoods were mostly embraced by neighborhood groups—most notably on 23rd, where community relations with the city had initially been tense.

The upzones, under a policy known as MHA (Mandatory Housing Affordability), tied new development to building affordable housing, trading increased density for affordable housing requirements; MHA has a goal of creating 6,000 affordable units in 10 years. Any developer that builds in these upzoned neighborhoods  has to either make a commensurate payment into a city affordable housing fund or build a corresponding amount of affordable housing on site.

What I didn’t expect was that a pro-housing, pro-density urban center like downtown, where the upzone is already on the books, would turn out to be the Seattle NIMBYs’ Battle of Yorktown.

Following up this year, the city turned to a comprehensive upzone in Seattle’s remaining Urban Centers and Urban Villages, multifamily areas of varying density ranging from the rest of the city’s more dense Urban Centers like Northgate and Capitol Hill to Residential Urban Villages such as Rainier Beach and Crown Hill. This larger rezone, which ultimately includes 27 neighborhoods, also encompasses additional multi-family and commercial zones on the outskirts of the city’s single-family zones. The 27 upzones would slightly expand ten of the Urban Center and Urban Village zones. The result: About six percent of the adjacent SFZs, where only detached single-family housing is currently allowed, would be rezoned into slightly denser Residential Small Lot zones, Lowrise zones, and Neighborhood Commercial zones, adding what pro-housing urbanists call “Missing Middle” housing—small-scale developments that fit in seamlessly with single-family housing.

Like the original six hub urban center upzones, the broader upzones all came with MHA requirements to build or fund affordable housing.

Given that SFZs take up a lopsided 65 percent of the city’s developable land, rezoning a slender six percent of the SFZs for multifamily housing seems more than reasonable, especially at a time when Seattle isn’t building enough housing to keep up with our dramatic population growth.

However, the upzones have stalled: A coalition of appellants representing single family zones are currently fighting the upzone in front of the city hearing examiner. And it drags on and on.

Despite the welcoming “In this House” signs that are ubiquitous throughout Seattle’s SFZs, the foot-stomping intransigence from exclusive single-family neighborhoods against adding housing to their suburban-style enclaves is hardly surprising. Seattle’s liberal hypocrisy rolls that way.

What I didn’t expect was that a pro-housing, pro-density urban center like downtown— where the upzone is already on the books—would turn out to be the Seattle NIMBYs’ Battle of Yorktown. The fight to “Save the Showbox” has stalled one of the first building proposals to come under the new progressive MHA policy—Vancouver developer Onni’s proposal to replace the Showbox with a 440-foot, 442-unit apartment tower with ground-level retail that would have raised $5 million in one fell swoop for affordable housing.

In yet another city hall 180, the council voted yesterday to turn last year’s unanimous yea vote to upzone downtown, into a unanimous nay vote for Rock and Roll NIMBYism. The city council voted this week to renege on downtown MHA by making the two-story Showbox off-limits.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised by this either. With its 2018 Pearl Jam mania, Seattle idles in nostalgia.

I understand that unchecked hyper development comes with serious problems like gentrification. But the way to fight gentrification isn’t through symbolic battles on behalf of specific, popular businesses. The way to fight gentrification is by having integrated development and land-use policies that keep affordable housing in the mix in the first place. With the MHA upzones, the city had that very policy in place.

Now, by caving to the first reactionary uprising against the exact policy outcomes MHA was enacted to produce—more housing and more affordable housing—the council has shown that crowd politics informed by nostalgia and resistance-to-change have trumped (ahem) a well-calibrated policy.

I feel like Johnny Rotten walking around London in 1975 in his “I Hate Pink Floyd” T-shirt when I say this: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ the Showbox.

Someone who supports saving the Showbox asked me if I would ever take the side of historic preservation over development. Of course. I visited the reclaimed Lorraine Motel in Memphis earlier this year. American History. Amazing. But arts venues with cool marquees are hardly a rare breed; the Moore, the Paramount, the Egyptian, and the Neptune all come to mind. And there’s plenty of great places to see music in Seattle. I’ve been to a ton of great shows already this year—DoNormaal and Nightspace (Kremwerk), Umami Goddess (Vermillion), Serpent With Feet (Barboza), Wayne Horvitz (the Royal Room), Lorde (Key Arena), Liz Phair and Lisa Prank (the Crocodile), Stas Thee Boss (Chop Suey), Mortuary Drape (The Highline), Mourn and Chastity (Barboza), Orpheus and Eurydice (Seattle Opera Studios).

But when it comes to stopping legal development that includes $5 million for affordable housing  because you want to save a club whose historic value is as omnipresent as 90s nostalgia? You lost me at NIMBY.

Saving the Showbox Just Took a Big Step Forward, But What’s Next?

This story originally appeared on Seattle magazine’s website.

Efforts to “save the Showbox” theater moved forward Wednesday, though not in quite the way council member Kshama Sawant envisioned when she proposed legislation on Monday to expand the Pike Place Market Historical District on a two-year “interim” basis to include more than a dozen buildings on the east side of First Avenue, including the Showbox.

On Wednesday, council members Teresa Mosqueda, Lisa Herbold, and Sally Bagshaw whittled down Sawant’s legislation to expand the historic district to encompass just one new property—the Showbox—and for just ten months, rather than two years. The amended legislation passed the committee unanimously, and could go before the full council on Monday.

The council got its first look at the plan to “Save the Showbox” by expanding the Market on Monday when Sawant introduced a proposal to increase the size of the Pike Place Market Historical District to include all the properties on the east side of First Avenue downtown between Virginia and Union Streets—the largest expansion in the history of the district, which was expanded twice in the 1980s.

Sawant said the council needed to pass her proposal quickly—just one week after it was introduced—in order to halt Vancouver, B.C.-based developer Onni from building a 44-story apartment tower on the site.

By Monday afternoon, dozens of Showbox supporters had mobilized at city hall, waving signs (distributed by Sawant’s staff) that read “Save the Showbox” and “Music for People, not Profits for Onni Group” and testifying about the importance of preserving the historic venue, which first opened as a dance hall in 1939. Since then, it has served as a bingo hall, a party room, an adult “amusement arcade,” a storage facility, and a live music venue with a rich history.

Supporters’ comments focused on the Showbox’s value as a music venue, but the legislation Sawant proposed would have had implications far beyond the Showbox property, rendering brand-new buildings like the Thompson Hotel on First and Stewart as well as vacant parking lots, a 1985 condo tower, and the Deja Vu strip club “historic” by virtue of their inclusion in the historical district.

Buildings in the district, which was established in 1971 to protect small farmers, artisans, and retail businesses that were threatened by plans to bulldoze the Market, are subject to a long list of restrictions that regulate everything from which tenants are allowed to the color of first-floor interior walls to the wattage of exterior lighting and signage. (More on what the new strictures would have meant for the buildings on the east side of First Avenue here.)

Sawant said it was urgent to rush her proposal through in just one week, without the usual process that a large expansion of a historic district would ordinarily require, because Onni was scheduled to vest the project “in about three weeks’ time,” which would make it subject only to current land use laws, which allow it to build an apartment building on First Avenue.

“I’m convinced that there’s a reason to rush,” Sawant said Monday. “I don’t think we should be misleading community members into thinking they have the time” to “save the Showbox” in a more deliberate way, she added. Historic designation would give “breathing room to the community and prevent Onni’s luxury project from becoming a fait accompli.”

Things moved quickly from there. Sawant’s office sent out emails calling on her supporters to “pack city hall” before a Wednesday meeting of the city council’s finance and neighborhoods committee to “force the Council to listen to our movement’s demands.”

By Wednesday afternoon, when the committee met, city council members Teresa Mosqueda and Sally Bagshaw had countered with amendments to Sawant’s proposal that would reduce the size of the historical district expansion area to eliminate everything but only the Showbox property and reduce the amount of time the new controls would be in place from two years to ten months.

This amended legislation passed out of Bagshaw’s committee unanimously on Wednesday and headed to full council, where it could be heard on Monday.

On Wednesday, the timeline to pass the legislation was officially moved more than two months into the future, when Nathan Torgelson, director of the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections, told council members that Onni will not submit its application for early design guidance, a necessary step in the approval process, until October 17, meaning the absolute earliest the project could vest is October 18.

That gives the council some breathing room to come up with some kind of agreement to preserve the Showbox as a music venue in a number of ways: 1) by permanently expanding the historic district to include the building, 2) by landmarking the building and arranging for a nonprofit to purchase and run it—possibly, as council member Lisa Herbold suggested, as part of the city’s existing historic theater district, or 3) by coming up with a compromise in which Onni agrees to reopen the Showbox in a new space on the ground floor of its new development, preserving any significant interior features of the current concert hall.

This proposed new expansion of the Pike Place Market Historic District to include the Showbox would give the Pike Place Market Historical Commission broad authority over both the physical building and its use, down to the choice of food and beverage vendors and any interior alterations or improvements. “If someone is selling bags in the market and they want to sell shoes instead, the commission reviews that,” Heather McAuliffe, the city’s coordinator for the historic district, told the council committee Wednesday.

Landmarking the building, in contrast, would preserve just the structure, without dictating how it could be used. Late on Wednesday, the Seattle Times reported that three historic preservation groups— Historic Seattle, Vanishing Seattle and Friends of Historic Belltown—had filed an application to landmark the venue, potentially circumventing a parallel application from Onni. The developer announced plans to seek landmark status for the building shortly after announcing plans to replace it with a 44-story apartment tower last month—a fairly routine practice for developers that want to expedite approval of their permits—but apparently had not yet filed its application with the city.

The third option—save the Showbox, demolish the building—would likely present the fewest legal issues for the city.

Landmarking the architecturally unremarkable two-story building where the Showbox is located or expanding the Pike Place Market Historical District to include the Showbox would amount to a selective downzone in a part of town where the city just adopted new zoning guidelines designed to encourage more housing construction. Barring Onni from building its apartment tower would also mean foregoing the approximately $5 million the developer would be required to contribute to affordable housing under those new guidelines.

That would likely lead to a protracted legal battle involving the property owner, Roger Forbes, who also owns Deja Vu, and Onni, who could argue that taking away the value represented by 44 stories of development potential amounts to a taking of private property. A compromise that would allow the Showbox to stay on First Avenue but does not restrict the owner’s ability to sell to Onni or Onni’s ability to build apartments could circumvent that potential legal dispute.

Building a new tower on top of the Showbox itself likely isn’t an option. The building, which is made of unreinforced masonry and covers basically the entire property on which it sits, would have to undergo a massive seismic upgrade to support a 44-story tower, if such an upgrade is even possible. Developer Kevin Daniels did a less significant seismic upgrade to preserve the now 111-year-old First United Methodist Church building on Fifth and Marion, which did not involve placing a building on top of the church, and that cost an estimated $40 million.

Of course, no historic district or landmark designation can force the Showbox to remain the Showbox. Forbes, the owner, could decide to sell the building. AEG Live, the subsidiary of Los Angeles-based Anschutz Entertainment Group that operates the Showbox, could decide not to renew its lease, which expires in 2021. Forbes could also decline to renew AEG’s lease.

Neither Forbes nor AEG responded to requests for comment.

If the building became an official part of the Market, the market historical commission could stipulate that it had to remain a music venue in perpetuity—and the building’s owners could fail to find a suitable tenant. There are many scenarios, in other words, in which the Showbox might close even after a successful effort to “save” it.

It was unclear after Wednesday’s vote whether the council would vote on the Showbox legislation on Monday, as Sawant originally proposed, or wait a few weeks to let discussions with Onni play out.

Council member Mike O’Brien, who initially supported Sawant’s proposal to move quickly because he believed the council only had three weeks to act, said he now believes “it would be prudent” to look at other models for saving the Showbox before going with the plan Sawant proposed. Council member Lorena Gonzalez, meanwhile, said that whatever happens, she plans to draft a resolution “that lays out in clearer form what we expect to occur over the next nine to 12 months.”

The Showbox isn’t “saved” just yet. But it might have just bought some time, and gained a few new routes to salvation.