Showbox supporters got some good news Wednesday as Seattle’s Landmarks Preservation Board voted unanimously to grant the embattled music venue landmark status.
The board voted to designate The Showbox as a landmark based on two criteria: That it is “associated in a significant way with a significant aspect of the cultural, political, or economic heritage of the community, city, state, or nation” and that it “embodies the distinctive visible characteristics of an architectural style, or period, or method of construction.”
While landmark status protects some of the venue’s physical elements — in this case, both exterior and interior elements — it does not ensure that the space will continue to operate as The Showbox. “This is not over,” said Eugenia Woo, preservation services director with Historic Seattle, one of the groups spearheading the landmark nomination. “The Showbox is not saved yet.”
According to Woo, the city, landmark board and Showbox owner Roger Forbes’ camp will next enter a negotiation period over what “controls” will be placed on the building. The controls govern the types of physical changes the owner would need to get approval for from the board. During this period, Woo said, Forbes could argue that the landmark designation deprives him of “reasonable economic use,” and if the board declines to place any controls on the building, it remains unprotected, she said.
“Usually controls are placed, the property gets protected, but we’ll see what happens here,” Woo said.
The Seattle music community was shaken last year by news of a Canadian developer’s plans to acquire the Showbox property and build a 44-story residential tower at the site. The Showbox, on First Avenue between Union and Pike streets, has hosted big acts from the jazz age to the grunge era to today’s pop stars.
At Wednesday’s hearing, Showbox supporters and employees once again made their presence felt, many wearing the “Save the Showbox” T-shirts that have peppered local rock-show crowds over the last year.
Sub Pop founder Jonathan Poneman and CEO Megan Jasper were among those speaking in favor of landmarking the beloved club. After moving to Seattle in 1979, Poneman recalled seeing his first show in town at the club (U.K. post-punks Magazine, for those wondering). “It changed my life,” he said.
During her testimony, Jasper put the club on par with New York’s Bowery Ballroom as a bellwether the industry watches to gauge artists taking the next step in their careers — comments that resonated with at least one of the board members while weighing The Showbox’s cultural significance.
“It takes a lot to get there,” Jasper said after the vote. “To sell it out is considered a milestone in our industry. To play The Showbox is a big deal, to sell it out is a huge deal and it’s something that all of us notice.”
Presenting before the board, representatives for Forbes argued that numerous alterations over the years have eroded design elements from The Showbox’s past and questioned the building’s “physical integrity.” Since reopening as a theater in 1939, the building has been used off and on as a music venue, with stints as a furniture store, bingo hall and comedy club. While the showroom has connections to various scenes and eras, attorney Jack McCullough contended that the cultural significance being discussed is tied to its recent past and shouldn’t qualify the club as a historic landmark.
“If we were sitting here 20 years ago, would we be having this conversation?” McCullough said.
The current iteration of The Showbox traces back to 1996 when Jeff Steichen acquired the Showbox Comedy and Supper Club and returned it to a dedicated music hall. International promoter AEG Presents took control of the venue in 2007.
The landmark nomination was led by preservation groups Historic Seattle, Friends of Historic Belltown and Vanishing Seattle. Historic Seattle’s Woo said in a statement: “We are ecstatic that our city, through today’s designation by the Landmarks Preservation Board, has formally recognized what so many people have known and said all along: The Showbox is a landmark and this place matters.”
Woo added that there was more work to be done, including continuing efforts by Historic Seattle to purchase the venue. “Although landmarking offers protections for the physical elements of the property and not its use, this is a critical step that helps to save the building that houses The Showbox. To preserve its use as a thriving home to the music community, Historic Seattle is continuing our due diligence to purchase the property through a fundraising campaign.”
Aaron Pickus, a spokesperson for the Showbox ownership, said in a statement that “1426 First Avenue has enjoyed a wide spectrum of uses and a broad application of design changes throughout its existence. We respect the work of the Landmark Preservation Board to designate the property as a landmark, but disagree with both the reasoning and the decision itself. We will further evaluate their designation as we consider next steps.”
Last month, Showbox supporters were dealt a significant blow when King County Superior Court Judge Patrick Oishi overturned an ordinance granting it a temporary protection. In August 2018, the Seattle City Council initially voted to temporarily expand the Pike Place Market Historical District to include The Showbox, effectively blocking a proposed development at the site.
Inclusion in the district gave the Pike Place Historical Commission authority over how the space is used, in addition to any physical and structural changes to the building. The move was intended to buy time for a long-term solution o be considered, including studying whether or not the expansion should be made permanent. As the initial district expansion was set to expire this summer, the council voted to extend the protections by another six months in June.
Although the ordinance has now been nullified, the lawsuit initiated by Forbes is still ongoing. Forbes is pursuing damages against the city after Canadian developer Onni Group, which had planned to build the residential tower on the site, terminated an agreement to acquire the property following the city’s move to protect the venue.
After Oishi’s ruling, Dan Nolte, a spokesperson for the Seattle City Attorney’s office, said they were taking time to determine their next steps, including whether or not to appeal the decision.
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