“F the Showbox!” Emails Reveal District 3 Discontent With Sawant’s Club Crusade

Although crowds of music fans showed up to cheer city council member Kshama Sawant’s efforts to “Save the Showbox” earlier this year, emails obtained through a public disclosure request reveal that many of Sawant’s District 3 constituents and longtime supporters were baffled by or outright opposed her decision to prioritize a downtown club owned by a billionaire Republican over other pressing needs, including affordable housing and promoting small, minority-owned businesses in her own district. Sawant, whose district includes the Central District, Capitol Hill, Montlake, and part of Beacon Hill, is up for reelection next year.

Back in October, Sawant led a successful effort to “Save the Showbox” by adding the Showbox to the Pike Place Market Historical District, preventing the development of a planned 44-story apartment building on the property. (The Showbox, which is owned by the Anschutz Entertainment Group, is a tenant; AEG’s lease expires in 2021.) The move sparked an immediate lawsuit by the owners of the property, who argued that the legislation represents an illegal spot downzone of prime real estate that the council has already upzoned twice specifically to encourage residential development on First Avenue.

In the weeks leading up to the September vote, Sawant gave the Showbox the full Sawant treatment, with hundreds of red-and-white posters, multiple City Hall rallies, a sizeable ($1,325) ad buy in the Stranger, and even a concert on the plaza outside City Hall, held to coincide with the council’s vote inside. But as music fans and Showbox employees signed petitions and testified in favor of the legislation, some of Sawant’s constituents wondered why she was spending so much time and political capital “saving” a club that wasn’t even in her district. “I’m not interested in saving the showbox,” one District 3 constituent wrote. “I’m interested in building affordable housing. We/You are burning political capital on a fight we should not be in.”

What’s interesting about the emails, which came in response to two email blasts urging Sawant’s supporters to show up for an “organizing meeting” on September 11 and a “FREE CONCERT & Public Hearing” on the 19th, is that most of them aren’t from diehard Sawant opponents, but from people who say they support Sawant but oppose her single-minded focus on the Showbox.

“We’re spending a lot of energy and political capital on one building. It won’t create more housing or prevent people from being driven out of Seattle,” another District 3 resident wrote. “It won’t reduce Seattle’s climate impact. It won’t help our problems with homelessness, congestions or anything else. We could be spending this energy on the Mercer Megablock, but we’re not. How much staff time is being spent on this rather than more pressing issues?”

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Another District 3 resident wrote: “I’m a big fan of yours, but this is such a waste of time and energy. …  The city will be fine without the showbox- it won’t be fine without lots and lots of serious investment in housing.” And another, which I’ve taken out of all-caps: “You and your office team are failing to help black folks in the Central District!!!! Fuck the Showbox! You can count on one hand the persons of color who actually make a living by working for the Showbox! Save black and persons of color owned places in seattle too!!”

Caveat time. Emails from constituents represent the views of an unrepresentative sample of people motivated to write their council member. And Sawant, who won her last election with nearly 56 percent of the vote, hasn’t drawn an opponent yet. (Nor has she officially said whether she’s running for reelection.) However, it’s not hard to see Sawant’s focus on the Showbox emerging as a campaign issue, especially after a year in which the council’s lone socialist logged few major wins. The head tax is dead, Sawant’s lengthy speeches denouncing her colleagues for failing to support a series of hastily drafted affordable-housing proposals played to a mostly empty room, and the most noteworthy gains for low-paid workers—modest wage increases for social-service providers who contract with the city—were sponsored this year by council freshman Teresa Mosqueda, as part of a budget Sawant cast the lone vote against. None of this necessarily spells trouble for Sawant’s reelection chances. But it does suggest that she’ll have to do more than hold cheering sessions for citywide causes like the Showbox to rally the troops who actually matter—the 92,000-plus residents of her own council district.

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.

Evening Crank: Showbox Supporters Get Extra Notice of Upcoming Hearing; Anti-Head Tax Consultant Spady Seeks Funds to Kill Education Levy

1. “Save the Showbox” activists, including city council member Kshama Sawant, put out a call to supporters  this past Tuesday urging them to show up next Wednesday, September 19, for a “Concert, Rally, and Public Hearing” to “#SavetheShowbox!” at 4pm on Wednesday, September 19, to be followed by “the City of Seattle’s formal public hearing on the Showbox.” That notice to activists went out three full days before the general public received notice of the hearing, at which the council’s Civil Rights, Utilities, Economic Development and Arts Committee will take public testimony on whether to permanently expand the Pike Place Market Historic District to include the building that houses the Showbox. That official public notice went out Friday afternoon. (A post rallying supporters on Facebook (or any other social media) does not constitute a formal public notice of an official city hearing.)

Advocates who favor the Showbox legislation, in other words, appear to have received an extra three days’ notice, courtesy of a city council member, about an opportunity to organize in favor of legislation that council member is sponsoring. This advantage isn’t trivial—it means that proponents had several extra days to mobilize, take time off work, and organize a rally and concert before the general public even received notice that the hearing was happening.

Sawant’s call to action, which went up on her Facebook page on Tuesday, reads:

At the start of the summer, the Showbox, Seattle’s 80 year-old iconic music venue, seemed destined for destruction. Then the #SavetheShowbox movement came onto the scene, gathering more than 100,000 petition signatures and packing City Hall for discussions and votes. By mid-August, our movement had pressured the City Council to pass an ordinance put forward by Councilmember Kshama Sawant temporarily saving the Showbox by expanding the Pike Place Market Historical District for 10 months.

This was a historic victory and a huge first step, but the movement to #SavetheShowbox is far from over. The current owners of the building have sued the city and we know the developer Onni will do everything in its power to bulldoze the Showbox, and corporate politicians will certainly capitulate, unless we keep the pressure up.  

Why does it matter if a council member gives one interest group advance notice of an opportunity to sway public opinion (and to bring pressure to bear on her fellow council members) on an issue?  For one thing, the city is currently being sued by Roger Forbes, the owner of the building that leases space to the Showbox, who had planned to sell the land to a developer, Onni, to build a 44-story apartment building. Forbes’ lawsuit argues, among other things, that Sawant and other council members  violated  the state’s Appearance of Fairness Doctrine, which requires 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. Organizing a rally, and giving one side several extra days to mobilize for a public  hearing, could be seen as evidence of bias in violation of these rules.

A key question will be whether adding the Showbox to the historic district, and thus dramatically restricting what its owner can do with his property, constitutes a land-use decision that is subject to quasi-judicial rules. In the lawsuit, Forbes argues that by including the Showbox in the historic district, the council effectively downzoned his property, and only his property, from 44 stories to two, the height of the existing building. Forbes had planned to sell the land to Onni for around $40 million, and is seeking that amount in damages.

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2. Dick’s Burgers scion Saul Spady, whose PR firm, Cre8tive Empowerment, took in $31,000 during the four-week campaign to defeat the head tax, is hoping to raise $100,000 to oppose the upcoming Families and Education Levy and to fill the seven city council seats that will be up for grabs next year with “common sense civic leaders.” The money would, according to the email, go to Spady’s firm for the purpose of “digital outreach.”

In an email obtained by The C Is for Crank, Spady says he held a meeting last week with a group of potential 2019 candidates, with the goal of “engag[ing] likely candidates & potential donors to build support for a digital outreach campaign partnering with my advertising agency Cre8tive Empowerment to engage likely Seattle voters via Facebook & Instagram to help them learn more about important city issues in late 2018 and 2019 ranging from:

• 2018 Education/Property Tax Levy [$683 million over 6 years]
• Did you know increasing Property Taxes increases your rent?
• 2018 Ballard Bike Path Costs rising to $25 million for 1.4 miles
• Lack of Safety, Property Crimes, Affordable Housing & Homelessness [2019 Core Issue]”

The first two bullet points are about the Families and Education Levy, a property tax measure which funds preschool, summer school, early childhood and school-based health services, and other programs aimed at closing the achievement and opportunity gap for students in Seattle Schools. That levy passed in 2011 with 63 percent of the vote. Part of the strategy to kill that levy, apparently, will involve informing renters, who make up 53 percent of Seattle households, that their landlords use their rent to pay for things.

The rest of the initial $100,000 would go toward “build[ing] strong & vibrant grassroots communities in Seattle that want to engage on major issues & will vote for common sense civic leaders in 2019,” described elsewhere in the email as  “candidates focused on common sense, fiscally responsible & accountable government mixed with active citizens who are concerned about the continuing slide of Seattle into the ‘corruption of incompetence’ that we’re witnessing across all sectors of city hall.” The campaign, Spady writes, will aim to place “positive articles from local leaders” in the Seattle press and to “deliver 3,000,000+ targeted Facebook/Instagram impressions among core targets” over the next three months. Just something to think about the next time you see a slickly produced Facebook ad opposing some proposed homelessness solution, or explaining to you in patient, simple language that when your landlord’s costs go up, your rent does, too.

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 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.

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.

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.