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City Council and local organizations fight to preserve the Showbox

As advocates prepare to voice their opinions, legislation is coming down the pipeline

Lorde performs at the Showbox in 2013.
Mat Hayward/Getty Images

When news broke Wednesday that developer Onni Group had filed for permits to build a 44-story apartment building where longtime music venue the Showbox currently stands, public backlash was swift. A petition created the day-of already has more than 80,000 signatures, and has been shared by both Death Cab for Cutie, Alice in Chains, and Macklemore.

But plans to put a new building at the site are preliminary—the project hasn’t even had its first design review meeting. And while Onni Group confirmed to Curbed Seattle that the project would involve demolishing the Showbox if approved, there’s a long way to go before that point. And as historic preservation organization Historic Seattle, along with Vanishing Seattle and Historic Belltown, prepare to arm the public with public advocacy skills, City Councilor Kshama Sawant has announced an ordinance to preserve the 1939 building.

“This is yet another example of how development and construction decisions in Seattle are being driven primarily by whatever will make the quickest dollar for the largest for-profit developers, with little regard for the needs and desires of the rest of us,” said Sawant in an open letter announcing the measure. “Often it is affordable housing that we see demolished to make way for new luxury buildings that only the wealthy get to live in. In this case, it is a landmark of Seattle’s history and music that is on the chopping block.”

While Sawant and Historic Seattle are both calling for landmark status for the building, they’re all careful to point out that it’s not just status alone they want. Onni has even announced it’d be applying for landmark status for the Showbox—a tactic often used by developers for tax credits or grant eligibility in exchange for preserving parts of a building, like a marquee or other historic feature.

“The Showbox theater should not only be preserved on the outside, but also be maintained as a music venue,” said Sawant.

“We obviously hope ... that Board will not just preserve the facade, but enable Seattle’s music community to continue to function at the venue,” she continued. “There are undoubtedly other locations where upscale apartments could be built, although what our city really needs is affordable housing.”

The historic preservation group, meanwhile, has met with Showbox operator AEG to discuss plans, and encourages the public to reach out to the City Council. “Tell them what you’ve experienced there, how the building’s cultural history is important, and how it makes our city more vibrant,” said Eugenia Woo, Historic Seattle’s director of preservation services, in a statement.

Historic Seattle has offered advise the public on how to engage with the public process around review and landmark nomination, including submitting comments and testifying at hearings. But the organization acknowledges that even a perfect preservation effort won’t necessarily save the Showbox.

“If the building is not landmarked, it is a certainty that the Showbox will be demolished,” read a release distributed Tuesday. “If it is landmarked, it is still possible that AEG could lose its operating rights when its lease ends in a few years. Historic Seattle would like to connect with any Showbox-friendly investors who could put forth an offer to buy the building and keep the Showbox in place.”

Sawant plans to introduce the ordinance by the Monday, August 6 City Council meeting.

Onni, in a statement distributed late last week, said that “the company looks forward to working with all stakeholders including the city and Landmark Preservation Board to determine the landmark status of the building.”

The developer also confirmed that the Showbox “will continue to operate under the management of AEG, which is the current tenant and operator of the Showbox Theatre,” during the process.

This article has been updated with a statement from Onni.