Arts & Culture

So How Can Seattle Save the Showbox?

"This is history and we don't want it taken away."

By Hayat Norimine August 2, 2018

News that the Showbox was in danger of getting demolished and replaced by a high-rise apartment building left many Seattle community members—including some at City Hall—scrambling for solutions.

The good news: AEG's lease to operate through the Showbox goes until early 2021. While Vancouver, B.C.-based development company Onni Group submitted its plans to the city to buy the property, there's still a long process before the deal is done: the property purchase, a building permit, potential environmental review, and a determination of whether the building qualifies for landmark status. If activists want to save the venue, now's the opportune time to do it.

Community members trying to save the 79-year-old music hall found an ally in council member Kshama Sawant Wednesday, when she announced her intent to propose legislation that could help preserve the Showbox. Sawant's plan includes a city council resolution and two bills—one that could help keep the building intact as a cultural space, and another that would expand the Pike Place Market Historical District to include the Showbox. 

"Working people in this city are losing both affordable housing and cultural spaces," Sawant said Wednesday. "The Showbox is an iconic venue. It captures Seattle's quintessential spirit."

None of those plans are a guarantee that the building, both the exterior and the interior use of a music venue, be preserved. A landmark building, or one that's within the historic district, would just be more difficult to demolish. And it would make the process to approve that change more strenuous, needing approval from those who likely want it preserved. 

But some options hold more power than others. So here are Showbox supporters' plans and what the process might look like:

Designate the building as a landmark. This can only be part of the solution, Historic Seattle's Naomi West told PubliCola. Onni Group itself wants to start the process of deciding whether its new purchase qualifies as a landmark; West said it's a strategic move by the company to control the narrative while still arguing that it disqualifies. And even if it is designated as one, earlier incidents of demolishing buildings in Seattle go to show—landmark status in itself isn't enough. 

To change or even demolish designated landmarks, "there are fewer restrictions than you might think since the goal is to manage change, not to eliminate it," the city's website said. Demolition or alteration requires a certificate of approval by the Landmarks Preservation Board. 

As it currently stands, city law also doesn't allow the board to protect a landmark building's use, only the building's exterior. If the building were to become a landmark, we could see the facade of the building but still say goodbye to the music hall. Sawant said her resolution would urge the board to nominate the Showbox for landmark status, and complementary legislation (suggested by Historic Seattle) would alter the landmarks bill to allow the board authority over preserving a building's use. 

Changing the landmarks ordinance itself to address cultural impact would not only keep the Showbox intact—but it would also proactively address future development battles near Pike Place Market and protect the city from potential lawsuits, West said. 

Expand the Pike Place Market Historical District. The district's eastern boundary right now ends midway between Pike and Union streets—right before it hits the Showbox. The district has been expanded before and could be done again. This, West told PubliCola, would likely hold the most power to preserve the Showbox if the city council can pass it quickly. 

The problem with this avenue is that it's a long process, one that requires changing the city's zoning code, public hearings, and approval from other property owners who would be affected. It would potentially add another multiple blocks to the district in an area where there's currently a lot of developer interest. 

A building in the historic district could still be demolished. But it would need review and approval by the Pike Place Market Historical Commission, which could be a tough sell.

“The limitations of the landmarks ordinance are on display in this case, and the City Council and Mayor Durkan have the ability to pursue policy solutions to the problems highlighted by the Showbox’s possible demolition," Eugenia Woo, Historic Seattle's director of preservation services, said in a statement Wednesday. "We encourage them to work with us on such solutions to our city’s teardown trend. Use policy, in addition to the pulpit.”

Find an investor. There is another solution: Find another buyer, one who wants to keep the Showbox as a music venue, and see if the property owner bites. And Historic Seattle staffers are looking for someone in their network.

"Since the property is not sold yet, there is an opportunity to see if there’s another group of investors that can purchase the property" with the intent of keeping the Showbox as is, Woo told PubliCola.

"We want someone who we know, knows Seattle, and understands the importance of this place," West said. 

Over 86,000 people have signed a petition, started by comedian Jay Middleton, to save the Showbox. 

"We're frustrated with culture, history, art being ripped away from this city by developers," Middleton said. "We're not going to stand for this as artists, as music lovers, as just citizens of Seattle. ... This is history and we don't want it taken away."

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