Morning Crank: A Dramatic Turnaround

1. All Seattle Public Library restrooms will soon be equipped with containers for needle disposal, following a six-month pilot program at the library system’s Ballard, Capitol Hill, University, and downtown branches. The library initiated that pilot after an employee at the Ballard branch was stuck with a needle while removing the trash from the women’s restroom, as I exclusively reported in March.

The decision marks a dramatic turnaround in library policy from just seven months ago, when library spokeswoman Andra Addison said that the library had no plans to install sharps containers for drug users (and diabetics) to dispose of used needles, because “We don’t allow illegal drug use in the library.”  The King County Public Library system preceded the Seattle library in installing sharps containers at branches in Burien, Renton, and Bellevue—branches where library staffers kept finding used needles on the floor, in toilets, and in trash bins.

Addison says it will cost about $2,000 to install the containers—the same ones used in the King County system—in all 60 library restrooms., and about $7,000 to empty and maintain them.  “The Library has ordered the additional sharps containers and we hope to have them installed over the course of November,” Addison says.

According to data provided by the library, the sharps containers at the downtown, Capitol Hill, Ballard, and University branches continue to be the most heavily used. Between the week of April 20 and the week of October 12, 912 sharps were discarded at the Central branch library, 348 on Capitol Hill, 234 in Ballard, and 194 in the University District.

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2. The city of Seattle won on two counts in the lawsuit filed by the owners of the Showbox on Friday, when King County Superior Court judge Mary E. Roberts ruled that legislation expanding the Pike Place Market Historic District to include the music venue did not constitute an illegal land use decision or a taking of private property. However, Roberts did agree to hear claims on two other, arguably more substantive, questions: Did the “Save the Showbox” legislation violate the state appearance of fairness doctrine, which requires officials to keep an open mind on so-called quasi-judicial land use decisions (like zoning changes for a specific property)? And did the city violate the property owners’ constitutional rights by dictating the use of the building as a music venue?

The owner of the building in which the Showbox is located, Roger Forbes, sued the city last month after the city council passed, and Mayor Jenny Durkan signed, “emergency” legislation making the two-story building part of the Pike Place Market Historical District. (The Showbox itself—that is, the venue that rents the building—is owned by the international behemoth Anschutz Entertainment Group).  The law, known as the “Save the Showbox” bill, prevented Forbes from selling the property to a developer, Onni, that had planned to build a 44-story apartment tower on the block. (The city had in fact just upzoned the block, along with the rest of First Avenue, specifically to encourage this type of development).

If the city violated the use of fairness doctrine, it will mean that all the public hearings and rallies and open discussions about the importance of  “Saving the Showbox” as a music venue—of which there have been many—were illegal, because the council should have remained neutral and refrained from holding public hearings. (Not only did the council hold public hearings, its members made signs, staged concerts, and even drafted public comments for private citizens in favor or the proposal.) If the court finds that the city violated Forbes’ rights by dictating the use of the Showbox property it will mean that the legislation thwarting Forbes’ plan to sell and develop the property was unconstitutional, and could open the city up to monetary claims.

The city is arguing that the “Save the Showbox” legislation—whose first section calls the Showbox “a significant cultural resource to Seattle and the region” whose loss “would erode the historical and cultural value of the Pike Place Market neighborhood”—in no way prevents Forbes or any future owner from shutting the Showbox down and using the property for another purpose. Forbes, pointing to the plain text of the legislation and the fact that the law gives the Pike Place Market Historical Commission the right to dictate every aspect of how the building is used, from the tenants down to the font, size, and materials used in its signage, says that’s absurd.

Forbes’ attorney noted that the city has only responded to one of the attorney’s ten public disclosure requests, making it difficult, he argued, to know “all the violations of the appearance of fairness doctrine.” For example, he said, “we just learned by happenstance that the cc staffers were writing public comments”—because of information that I obtained through my own disclosure request and reported on this site.

In dismissing the Showbox owners’ takings and land use claims, Roberts said that neither claim was ripe for consideration—in the case of the land use claim, because the owner of the property and the developer, Onni, had not filed a permit to develop the property by the time the legislation passed, and in the case of the takings claim, because the city has not issued any final decision about what kind of development is allowed on the property.

Roberts also rescheduled the remaining counts for early next fall.

Showbox Property Owners Respond to City, Seek Depositions from Council Members Bagshaw, Sawant

A lot has happened since I wrote about the city’s response to a lawsuit by the owners of the Showbox last month. (The lawsuit, in very brief, alleges that the city council violated land use processes in spot-downzoning the Showbox property when they expanded the Pike Place Market Historical District to include the property on a temporary basis, preventing a 44-story development, and that the historic designation represents a taking of about $40 million—the amount for which the owner, Roger Forbes, planned to sell the land to the Vancouver developer Onni.)

Back in September, the city asked a King County Superior Court judge to dismiss Forbes’s land use claims claims (technically,  an LLC created by Forbes that owns the property, but we’ll stick with Forbes for clarity’s sake) on the grounds that Onni hadn’t formally sought any permits from the city, that inclusion in the historic district didn’t constitute a land use decision restricting how Forbes could use his property,  and that in fact nothing in the “Save the Showbox” legislation said that the Showbox must be saved.

The property owners—sounding spitting mad—filed a brief last week objecting to the city’s motion to dismiss the land use claims in the lawsuit, arguing that the decision to add the Showbox property, and only that property, to the historic district—effectively reducing its development potential from 44 stories to two—constituted a “reverse spot zone” and therefore was a “classic taking.” In their defense, they cite a number of cases that reducing the height of what can be built on one piece of land is considered a zoning decision, regardless of whether a permit has been filed. (The council made it much less likely that Onni would file a permit when they started talking about killing the development immediately after the developer started a pre-application process with the city, and passed fast-track “emergency” legislation barely one week later to ensure that Onni couldn’t go forward with its plans.)

Violating almost all of its own rules for a property use decision, the City enacted an “emergency” ordinance – not to abate a public nuisance – but rather because it wanted a private music venue to be an asset of the City. To try and accomplish that, it had to circumvent and carve this parcel – and only this parcel – out of its own prior and lawful zoning actions that previously upzoned the property and surrounding properties twice for high-rise development. The most recent upzone occurred just last year when the property (and other similarly situated properties) were upzoned by the City to allow additional floors if property owners provided certain financial support to the City’s efforts to increase affordable housing. The City’s reverse spot zoning of this property, stripping only this property of the same development potential similarly situated parcels enjoy, was not an exercise of “police power” to protect the public. It was instead an eminent domain powerplay to appease a vocal “Save the Showbox” group at the expense of a single property’s development and use rights.

Forbes’ attorneys also lays out the case that the city violated the state 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. If the court finds that they did, it will mean that all the public hearings and rallies and open discussions about the need to “Save the Showbox” as a music venue in  perpetuity will have happened in violation of the law.

The response to the city makes one novel point: The Pike Place Market Historical District was not only created to protect small farmers and craftspeople from commercial development in the 1970s, it was formed by the city under the power of eminent domain—and, to this day, almost every single property in the district is publicly owned by the Pike Place Market Public Development Authority. That PDA has the right to regulate virtually every aspect of all businesses in the district, down to which tenants are allowed in each building, the size and materials on their signage, and what their storefronts look like on the inside. The Showbox building across the street, in contrast, is privately owned, making its inclusion in the historic district, the plaintiffs argue, even more of a taking than if the city had simply said Forbes couldn’t sell to a developer for an apartment tower.

This week, Forbes’ attorneys also filed a request to depose five city officials, including city council members Sally Bagshaw and Kshama Sawant, to get “information about the decision to single out this property, and only this property, for inclusion in the Pike Place Market Historical District, the process that the City employed in drafting, introducing and passing the ordinance, and the City’s real intentions in passing the ordinance (to maintain the property as a music venue in perpetuity).

“This information,” the request continues, “is relevant to Plaintiff’s contentions that the ordinance is invalid as an illegal spot zone, is otherwise procedurally invalid, was improperly passed because the Council violated the Appearance of Fairness statute, and violates Plaintiff’s First Amendment rights by forcing Plaintiff to maintain the property as a music venue.”

The hearing on that motion will be held next Friday, October 19. The trial is currently scheduled for February.

Note to readers: The reporting I do isn’t free! For example, court records cost 25 cents a page—a charge that can really add up when a case involves hundreds of pages. The time and effort it takes to bring you stories like this one, not to mention all my in-depth, on-the-ground reporting on the Showbox and other city issues, is made possible only by support from people who read this site. So if you enjoy my work and want to see it continue, please continue becoming a sustaining or one-time donor. Thanks for reading, and for your support!

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.