After the Seattle City Council passed an ordinance temporarily blocking a planned development for the longtime venue's site, the building's owner is fighting back.

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The owner of the Showbox site is fighting back. On Friday, attorneys representing the owner of the building filed a lawsuit against the city of Seattle contending a City Council measure to preserve the longtime venue was illegal.

According to the complaint, lawyers representing an LLC controlled by the building’s owner, Roger Forbes, argue that the city “failed to follow procedural requirements” in singling out the site for rezoning in what they call a “discriminatory spot zone.”

Last month the City Council fast-tracked an ordinance to temporarily include the Showbox building, which also includes a bar and a Forbes-owned strip club, in the Pike Place Market Historic District for 10 months. Including the site in the historic district gives the Pike Place Market Historical Commission authority over how the building is used, in addition to structural or cosmetic changes.

The city’s move was designed to block a proposed high-rise apartment building by Vancouver, B.C., developer Onni Group that could result in the demolition of the Showbox, while exploring ways to preserve the music venue long-term. Amid fervent outcry from Seattle’s music community, the council acted swiftly, fearing the planned development could advance to a point where any new zoning changes would not apply to the project.

The Showbox, open since 1939, has hosted big acts from the jazz age to the grunge era to today’s pop stars. It is shown here on May 10, 2018. (Dean Rutz / The Seattle Times)
The Showbox, open since 1939, has hosted big acts from the jazz age to the grunge era to today’s pop stars. It is shown here on May 10, 2018. (Dean Rutz / The Seattle Times)

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The lawsuit, which was first reported by Crosscut, aims to invalidate the ordinance and failing that, lawyers will seek approximately $40 million in damages, based upon the property’s “fair and reasonable” market value. A hearing or trial date has been set for Jan. 28, 2019.

“The City’s action is fundamentally inconsistent with the property’s location and deteriorated state, inconsistent with the development of the Pike Place Market in the 1970s, and inconsistent with the rights of the property owner,” the complaint says.

The complaint also notes that the venue has been passed over for potential landmark status on multiple occasions and has been upzoned twice since 2006, including last year when the area’s maximum building height was increased from 40 stories to 44.

In addition, the complaint argues that requiring the space to be maintained as a music venue violates the owner’s constitutional rights, noting the owner bought the building in 1997 for “redevelopment purposes.”

Onni’s proposed project would demolish the Showbox building, erecting a 442-unit apartment tower with ground-level retail in its place. The complaint contends that City Council members “flatly rejected the developer’s idea of potentially building a new performance space within the new development” when they passed the ordinance, introduced by Councilmember Kshama Sawant.

“We’re reviewing the complaint,” said Dan Nolte, spokesperson for the Seattle City Attorney’s Office, “and we look forward to making our arguments in court.”

When word of Onni’s plans broke in July, the local music community rallied around efforts to “Save the Showbox,” drawing public support from Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard, Pearl Jam and other prominent musicians. An online petition calling for the 79-year-old venue to be granted landmark status has garnered more than 100,000 signatures. Last month, a trio of preservation groups led by Historic Seattle nominated the imperiled concert hall for landmark status.

In perhaps the complaint’s most eye-catching claims, attorneys liken the “Save the Showbox” movement to President Donald Trump’s populist rhetoric. “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,” the complaint states. “Populism, and politicians’ desires to appease their loudest constituents and generate headlines must, however, yield to the rule of law.”