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.

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.