Advocates hoping to preserve the Showbox theater were handed a major, if temporary, victory Monday.
With Showbox supporters packing the council chamber and spilling out into the lobby, the Seattle City Council passed an ordinance to expand the Pike Place Market Historic District on an interim basis. Under the measure, the historical district will cover the site of the storied music hall for 10 months while the city considers long-term ways to save the Showbox, including making the expansion permanent.
“Nearly 50 years ago, it was a community uproar and community organizing that saved the Pike Place Market,” Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant said ahead of the 8-0 vote (Rob Johnson was absent). Sawant had pushed for legislation that would have expanded the historic district a half block to the east and the south, including other properties besides the Showbox site, for two years. A council committee last week pared down that proposal to cover just the Showbox.
“The Showbox is our struggle of our times, so it’s really exciting that we will be able to take this first step,” she said.
Monday’s vote does not guarantee a long and prosperous future for the 79-year-old venue, on whose First Avenue site Onni Group plans to erect a 442-unit apartment tower. However, the ordinance extends a timely protection before the Vancouver, B.C.-based developer hits a critical benchmark in the permitting process that would limit the council’s options.
The ordinance was fast-tracked amid concerns that the project could vest, meaning that any future zoning changes would not retroactively apply. Councilmember Lisa Herbold said that Onni voluntarily took steps to delay vesting in hopes that the council would postpone the vote. Onni’s legal team wrote to Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections last week stating they would consider ways to “sustain the performance history” of the Showbox, which Herbold called a “hollow effort.”
Onni could not be reached for comment Monday afternoon.
Councilmember M. Lorena González plans to submit a resolution, possibly next month, laying out how the city plans to proceed. “This represents much more than just a building,” González said. “It’s about who we want to be in the future of this city.”
Mayor Jenny Durkan, who ultimately needs to sign the ordinance, has expressed sympathy for efforts to preserve the venue, though she stopped short of backing Sawant’s original plan last week. Representatives from Durkan’s office and the city’s Office of Arts and Culture and Office of Film and Music were scheduled to meet with representatives for the Canadian developer last Wednesday.
Three local preservation groups, led by Historic Seattle, filed for landmark status for the venue last week. Onni had previously announced its intentions to submit its own nomination, often a procedural move developers will use to speed up the permitting process, though as of last Thursday the company had not yet done so. While landmark status could protect physical elements of the Showbox building, its inclusion in the market’s historical district offers stronger protections. The Pike Place Market Historical Commission has authority over how spaces within the district are used, not just any physical changes.
Eugenia Woo, director of preservation services at Historic Seattle, said the group is “very happy” with Monday’s vote, although the organization would have preferred a larger expansion of the historical district. “We understand that they need to make informed decisions and talk to all stakeholders in the community and everyone involved, and so we think that’s a good approach,” Woo said.
The planned development has triggered a wave of backlash from Seattle’s music community, which hopes to preserve the venue that’s on the national music radar. A petition calling for the Showbox to be granted landmark status has drawn more than 93,000 signatures. Last Friday, a coalition of prominent musicians, led by Seattle’s Death Cab for Cutie, Duff McKagan, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, and Pearl Jam took out a two-page ad in The Seattle Times voicing support for the Showbox’s preservation.
“The Showbox is a focal point of culture in the city,” Gibbard said in an interview earlier this month. “There are three things that people know about Seattle when you say that you live in Seattle — rain, coffee, music. You can’t attract people to a city by using its cultural touchstones … and then remove those things when they become inconvenient.”