The J Is for Judge: Yes, Capitol Hill Has Changed. For the Better.

I was bummed when Seattle’s music community rallied around the Lesser-Seattle cause of saving the Showbox because I believe cities need the arts and their artists to be forces for progressive policy, not forces of obstruction.

Death Cab for Cutie singer Ben Gibbard emerged as the frontman of that parochial crusade, which prioritized nostalgia over housing and embraced the knee-jerk narrative that development is bad.

The  housing/retail high rise that was supposed to replace the two-story Showbox would have generated more than $5 million for affordable housing in one fell swoop under the city’s new Mandatory Housing Affordability policy. It also would have provided hundreds of housing units in one of Seattle’s densest, most transit-rich neighborhoods.

I’m rehashing the Showbox issue because it turns out—judging from the unofficial, version of Death Cab for Cutie’s recent video, “Gold Rush,” (shot among cranes on Capitol Hill)—loopy nostalgia isn’t limited to one-off preservation crusades. If there was a Grammy for NIMBY politics, Death Cab would have it locked.

I don’t mean to be to hard on Gibbard. His explanation of the song on NPR was evocative and poetic. “The song is not a complaint about how things were better or anything like that…It’s an observation, but more about coming to terms with the passage of time and losing the people and the moments in my life all over again as I walk down a street that is now so unfamiliar.”

The fact is, Seattle is leading the way to undo the auto-centric development and land use policies that paved over paradise.

But at this tense and critical moment both nationally and in Seattle, where the populist inclination to be aggrieved by what’s “unfamiliar” can translate into harmful, exclusionary ideologies, it’s worth taking the politics of this local anthem to task.

I’m not exaggerating when I say “Gold Rush” is a NIMBY anthem. After lamenting how developers are tearing down his old haunts in favor profits and parking—“they keep digging it down/down so their cars/can live underground”—here’s the plaintive refrain:

“Change/Please don’t change/Stay/Stay the same”

When Gibbard uses parking as a trope to represent evil developers, he reveals that this song’s phoned-in politics are ill-informed. Sure, it worked for Joni Mitchell in 1970; back then, cities were, in fact, catering to cars with a set of messed-up priorities that we’re still trying to undo today.

The fact is, Seattle is leading the way to undo the auto-centric development and land use policies that paved over paradise.

Most notably, the city has tied the new development Gibbard deplores to reformed parking rules that dramatically reduce the amount of parking.  Check it out: Between 2004 and 2017, the average number of parking stalls for each new apartment unit has actually decreased from 1.57 to 0.63—a 60 percent drop.  And, according to the city, 30 percent of new apartment buildings have no parking at all.

In Capitol Hill, the setting for Death Cab’s mournful video, this progressive trend toward less parking might have something to do with all the groovy change that has come to the neighborhood: A light rail station opened on Broadway and John in 2016, the streetcar came online in 2015, and protected bike lanes on Broadway opened in 2014. None of this green infrastructure existed in the good old days, which are commemorated by an old gas station on the corner of Broadway & Pine. Meanwhile, hundreds of units of affordable housing are in the pipeline thanks to MHA and the new transit-oriented development blueprint for the neighborhood. One of the projects will have 308 units with no more than 20 parking stalls, or a maximum of one stall for every 15 units.

Certainly, Capitol Hill isn’t they gay enclave it was in the 1980s. But what hasn’t changed on Capitol Hill? There are tons of places—more than ever, it seems—for artists to play music and show their art. (There are even pizza places that stay open past 10:45 pm now!) Yes, it’s harder for artists to pay rent on Capitol Hill, but there are more opportunities for artists to be artists on Capitol Hill. And there’s a way to ensure artists can have housing in the city: By building more housing in the city.

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.

Support

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.