While the Showbox is an important piece of Seattle history, the impact of the Pike Place Market and its immediate surrounding area, including the Showbox is monumentally greater.
News that a developer plans to demolish the Showbox theater and replace it with a 440-foot residential tower has generated an outpouring of concern about the loss of a treasured venue for established artists, a launchpad for local musicians and the source of irreplaceable memories shared by appreciative audiences.
This outpouring triggered suggestions for preserving the Showbox, including rezoning, designating it a historical landmark, or finding an investor group to purchase and preserve it.
The Canadian developer, Vancouver, B.C.-based Onni Group, very cleverly and immediately responded to these concerns with an offer to “incorporate” the Showbox into its proposed tower. While details apparently will follow — everything from perhaps naming the new tower “The Showbox,” to incorporating a stage at street level of the tower — the focus has been on the theater rather than the impact of a 44-story building towering over the main entrance to the Pike Place Market. It’s a classic instance of not seeing the forest for the trees.
While the Showbox is an important piece of Seattle history and should be preserved, the impact to the Pike Place Market and its immediate surrounding area is monumentally greater.
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I’m hopeful the Showbox conversation, and actions taken by the Seattle City Council, will be expanded to focus on the Pike Place Market district and most particularly the scale of the district. Victor Steinbrueck was Seattle’s treasured architect, responsible for derailing the plan to convert the Market to condos and hotels in the 1960s. His biggest lament following the successful “Save the Market” campaign was that the Market Historical District did not extend farther east to the alley that runs from Virginia to Union streets between First and Second avenues. He understood the importance of scale and the necessity of preserving the low-rise buildings on the east side of First Avenue, opposite the Market.
The character, and our enjoyment of the Market, is now at risk of being destroyed forever if a wall of high-rise towers is constructed on First Avenue, directly across from the Market.
The City Council has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to preserve the Market district as we know and love it. This can be accomplished by pushing the pause button, imposing a moratorium on all building across the street from the Market, and thoughtfully evaluating rezoning or otherwise changing the boundaries of the Market Historical District.
Limiting such growth is further demanded by the inadequacy of Seattle’s street and alley infrastructure in this area, which already suffers from a gridlocked First Avenue and a narrow 20-foot alley for access to buildings and hotels. This limitation renders the area incapable of serving the pickup and drop-off, supply and fire/life/safety requirements needed for a wall of new towers.
The City Council is now considering expansion of the Market Historical District to include the Showbox site. Quite beyond the issues of whether this is an act of “spot zoning” or “a taking” for which the owner has a right to compensation, protection of the Market requires moving beyond the Showbox site alone to consideration of the impact of any further high-rise construction on any site on the east side of First Avenue facing the Market.
The proposal currently under consideration by the City Council, effectively spot zoning of the Showbox site alone, leaves the owners of the building next door and on adjoining blocks free to build tall towers, casting the same shadow and disruption which would follow from the tower proposed for the Showbox site.
I know the Market. My family owned a hardware store, Aronson’s Hardware, on First Avenue between Pike and Union, roughly where the Pike Place Brewery is today. It’s where I spent after-school hours and weekends stocking shelves and delivering to Market merchants ranging from the La Salle Hotel (then a house of prostitution) to Russian ships on the waterfront. Accompanying my father at the Market merchants’ table at Van de Kamp’s (now Lowell’s) for morning coffee is a particularly treasured memory. These memories hugely enrich my experience of now living in a condominium at Second and Pike, across the alley from the Showbox.
Full disclosure: While my west facing neighbors will be severely impacted by the loss of their views, I face east and south and would be minimally impacted by high-rise construction on First Avenue.
I am grateful for a lifetime of experiencing our treasured Pike Place Market, one of Seattle’s most precious assets, integrated into its immediately surrounding neighborhood. Hopefully generations to come will have an opportunity to share this experience and be spared the epic damage that would follow from permitting the Market to be overwhelmed by high-rise towers and the loss of some of its neighbors, such as the Showbox.