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A lesson for Capitol Hill? What’s being saved when it comes to Seattle’s Showbox

With reporting from Seattle City Council Insight

Mayor Jenny Durkan signed the “Save the Showbox” ordinance into law this week, adding the site of the music venue to the Pike Place Market Historical District for the next ten months. Though the venue is downtown and off the Hill, the efforts at City Hall will certainly ripple through the neighborhood given the importance of Pike/Pine’s remaining live music scene and the continuing pressures of redevelopment in Central Seattle. The episode might also present a framework for what needs to happen — or needs to not happen — the next time an important Capitol Hill cultural venue requires rescue.

So, what is actually being “saved” when it comes to the Showbox?

Durkan’s signature gives a temporary reprieve to the 1st Ave performance venue by requiring all ownership and use changes, as well as any construction work, to be approved by the Pike Place Market Historical Commission.

That puts a snarl in the real estate future for the property which include Canadian developer Onni Group’s plan to build a 44-story apartment building after demolition of the Showbox.

Durkan attached a signing statement to the ordinance, which acknowledges the outcry of support for preserving the Showbox and called the venue a “community anchor.”

“Some places just capture who we are and what we want to preserve as we grow,” Durkan said.

Earlier this month, the Seattle City Council voted 8-0 to pass into law an ordinance temporarily extending the protections of the Pike Place Historical District to the site of the Showbox through the creation of a “study area.”

Capitol Hill’s District 3 rep Kshama Sawantchampioned the cause. “Some ask: aren’t the artists and community members wanting to #SaveTheShowbox simply being nostalgic, sentimental, and anti-change?,” Sawant wrote on social media. “The problem is very little of the change in Seattle has been on our terms as ordinary working people — it favors big corporations and the wealthy.”

The days leading up to the council vote included a great deal of maneuvering, including intervention by the City Attorney’s Office and several last-minute amendments gathered into a substitute version of the ordinance. The late changes included some key aspects of the effort to save the venue as a performance space:

  • a declaration that the situation “constitutes an emergency;”
  • additional emphasis on the importance of the Showbox as “a significant cultural resource to Seattle and the region with a history connecting it to the adjacent Pike Place Market;”
  • a high-level work plan for evaluating and determining whether the Showbox site should become a permanent addition to the Historical District.

The work plan is intended to meet a state law requirement for interim zoning changes that last longer than six months. However, the council has not budgeted any funding for executing on the work plan.

Despite her support of the notion of preserving the Showbox as a cultural asset, Durkan this week criticized the council for rushing through the ordinance despite the cooperation among numerous stakeholders — including the developers — to delay the proposed project’s vesting until mid-October.

Durkan also made it clear that she is not ready to reject the notion of tearing down the existing building a replacing it with an apartment tower that contains a new home for the Showbox on its ground floor, despite forceful assertions from some members of the community that the existing facility must be kept intact. The current home of the Showbox is on the city’s list of buildings with unreinforced masonry that could be hazardous during a seismic event.

The emergency declaration, which Sawant said was at the recommendation of the City Attorney’s Office, is intended to allow the City to exempt its action from SEPA review. 

An attorney for Roger Forbes, the current owner of the building who is trying to sell it to Onni Development, sent council president Bruce Harrell and City Attorney Pete Holmesletter over the weekend before the council vote noting that the ordinance was on shaky legal ground and asking them to hold off on the legislation while other discussions were moving forward.

“It is important for all parties involved to be heard fairly and accorded consideration and for rights to be recognized and protected,” the letter reads. “Process should be afforded and both procedural and substantive fairness observed.”

Despite the risks, the council moved forward. Council member Lisa Herbold cited the Office of Arts and Culture’s CAP report from last year as highlighting “why this is an issue that is so much larger than the Showbox.” She rejected discussion of allowing Onni to construct a new building with a new Showbox on its ground floor, calling it a “hollow effort” and saying that there are things in the current structure that are important to keep such as its spring-loaded floor.

“Preserving the Showbox and its history and culture is going to take every tool in our book,” Sally Baghsaw said.

Council member Sawant, the bill’s sponsor, said that the effort is not about change, but rather about “on whose terms does change happen in Seattle?”

The Showbox lies outside of Sawant’s district but the largest live music venue on Capitol Hill in her District 3 seems unlikely to need any similar protections anytime soon. In spring 2017, CHS visited Neumos to check out its major overhaul as ownership increased its investment in the venue. The club underwent one significant upgrade in the late 90s and another in 2012 as the subterranean sibling club Barboza opened beneath. In 2014, the one-time Neumos Crystal Ball Reading Room marked 20 years on Capitol Hill. In 2012, Jason Lajeunesse and partners Mike Meckling, and Steve Severin inked another 10-year-lease along with fellow club partner Jerry Everard. One key to the stability at Neumos is the club’s success. Another? It has an ace in the hole — co-owner Everard also owns the building he purchased in 1993 from the Salvation Army for $577,895.

Back downtown, the ordinance the mayor signed into law this week still requires the study over the next ten months as to whether the Showbox site should be permanently added to the Pike Place Market Historical District. That work will need to be done by the market’s Historical Commission — the same group that also needs to develop a whole new set of rules for evaluating proposed changes in ownership, use and construction on the Showbox site now that it is officially part of the Historical District. Neither work item has been funded by the City Council, and currently the Commission is below its full complement of members because the City Council and mayor have dragged their feet on appointing additional commissioners.

Meanwhile, efforts beyond City Hall may benefit from the extra time. Historic Seattle is leading an effort that calls for preserving both the Showbox building’s interior and exterior that is hoped to get out in front of any weaker landmarking effort from developers.

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