Less than a week after jumping into the crusade to save the Showbox, Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant introduced an ordinance aimed at preserving the beloved theater — or at least buying some time.
Introduced during Monday’s City Council meeting, the proposed ordinance would temporarily expand the Pike Place Market Historic District to include the Showbox site, extending the current borders by a half block to the east and the south for two years. The Vancouver, B.C.-based Onni Group has proposed a 442-unit apartment tower with ground-level retail that would apparently demolish the 79-year-old venue.
“This is a question of whether the people in Seattle will have any democratic say in what is saved” and what will be demolished, Sawant said in introducing the ordinance.
By including the Showbox within the Market’s historic district, the development would need the approval of the Pike Place Market Historical Commission, Sawant said. Based on information from the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections, Sawant said Onni could “vest” the project in roughly three weeks, an important benchmark in the permitting process that would make the development subject to the permitting laws in place at that time. Any ordinances passed after the completed application is received would not apply to the $100 million project, she said.
“If you do support this, I hope you understand the urgency that we’re up against,” Sawant said to boisterous applause from Showbox supporters in attendance, including Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard.
Members of the Pike Place Market Historical Commission had not been formally briefed on Sawant’s proposal and were “working to understand the specifics of the draft ordinance and the role of the commission,” according to a spokesperson.
Last week Onni announced its intentions to nominate the longtime music hall for landmark status, a procedural move typically used by developers to speed up the permitting process when a property is likely to be nominated at some point anyway.
Sawant’s proposed ordinance was ultimately referred to the Finance and Neighborhoods committee, where it will receive a hearing during the committee’s 2 p.m. Wednesday meeting. The full council could vote on the ordinance as soon as Aug. 13, ahead of its two-week August recess, which Sawant said contributes to the urgency. She also noted that the Market’s historic district has been expanded twice in the past, in 1986 and 1989.
While Councilmember Rob Johnson supported sending the ordinance to committee, he cautioned against moving too swiftly and without hearing from other stakeholders and property owners who might be affected by the historic district’s expansion. Johnson also said that, based on information he received, he didn’t think Onni would submit its application until Sept. 1.
Councilmember Mike O’Brien agreed that the council would ideally have more time to gather information, but said he’s in favor of voting on the ordinance by next Monday’s full council meeting, fearing that failure to act could tie the council’s hands. “Our ability to preserve the Showbox may be hindered if we don’t do that,” he said.
Naomi West, director of philanthropy at Historic Seattle — the nonprofit leading a coalition of groups trying to preserve the Showbox — said the group would prefer a permanent expansion of the district, worrying that they could have the same conversation again in two years, just before the Showbox’s lease expires in 2021. However, West says the group supports Sawant’s ordinance if a permanent expansion isn’t politically attainable.
Unlike the city’s Landmark Preservation Board, the Pike Place Market Historical Commission has authority over the use of buildings within its jurisdiction in addition to physical or structural changes. Currently, the Showbox site is zoned for buildings up to 44 stories, West says, noting the maximum height “would be significantly reduced to fit within the general layout and height” of the Market if it were included in the historic district.
“I think everybody would take a collective sigh of relief” if Sawant’s ordinance passes, West says, noting the next step would be unclear. She says it’s possible that Onni could scrap its development plans or pursue legal action against the city, a concern echoed by City Council President Bruce Harrell during the council’s morning briefing.
But if anything’s clear, it’s that Showbox supporters aren’t letting it go without a fight. Since news of Onni’s plans surfaced last month, more than 90,000 people have signed a petition calling for the venue to be granted landmark status, and many Showbox employees, fans and musicians testified during Monday’s council meeting.
“We cannot allow this vital piece of our rapidly changing city to be snuffed out,” Gibbard said.