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Seattle City Council could stall Showbox development

An ordinance would expand the Pike Place Market historic district—temporarily

Courtesy of Historic Seattle

With Seattle up in arms over a plan to build an apartment building on the current site of music venue the Showbox, the City Council will consider an ordinance that could stall development—or, ultimately, help to halt it.

Under the proposed legislation, introduced by City Councilor Kshama Sawant on Monday, the existing Pike Place Market historic district’s boundary would be moved farther to the east and south on an interim basis. The appearance of historic districts is regulated by either a specific citizen’s board or the Landmarks Preservation Board—giving them stricter design standards and a tighter rein on new development. (The Pike Place Market historic district, for the record, was created in 1971 by an citizen initiative as the market itself was eyed for new development.)

The ordinance calls for extending it for up to two years, with an option to make the expansion permanent.

There’s a catch, though: under state law, once a proposed development vests (in this case, likely three weeks after application, according to the city), it’s governed by the land use regulations that exist at the time a permit is initially applied for. So if the City Council doesn’t pass the ordinance soon, it will be a moot point for Showbox preservation, and it wouldn’t do anything for other proposed developments around the market, like the Hanh Building.

The view of Pike Place Market from the Showbox in 1973. The Showbox’s marquee is slightly visible.
Courtesy of the Seattle Municipal Archives item No. 34147

Another complication to this method is that that every building and business in the expanded district—not just the Showbox—will be subject to those same strict design standards.

Seattle preservation nonprofit Historic Seattle spokesperson Bailey Hess said the Hanh Building is evidence that such a strategy is “clearly needed.”

“The boundaries shown in [Sawant’s] proposal align with our vision for an expanded historic district and would protect key parts of the area, including the Showbox building,” said Hess over email. “Expansion would still not guarantee use, but would provide protections because the Pike Place Market Historical Commission has authority over change in use in buildings included in the district.”

Adding to the sense of urgency is a planned two-week City Council recess at the end of August, meaning the council probably has to act this Monday, August 13 to have any effect. The relevant City Council committee will have to pass it at its meeting this week—Wednesday at 2 p.m.—to send back to full City Council.

If it doesn’t pass, that’s one less tool for Showbox preservation in the toolbelt, but it’ll still have to go through design review. The building is also going to be up for historic preservation. Even Onni, the developer of the proposed new building, has announced it is applying for historic preservation—although sometimes that means a developer is looking for incentives that come with preserving parts of buildings, like facades and signs, within a new development.

City Council chambers were packed with Showbox supporters, with the public comment period extended twice—and still not covering everyone.

“We’re very proud of our musical heritage here in Seattle, and it’s a massive part of the cultural mosaic and one of our calling cards to the rest of the world … and yet today one of our great cathedrals is currently at risk of being leveled,” said Death Cab for Cutie singer and Seattle resident Ben Gibbard while addressing council. “But the Showbox is not just a musical venue. It’s been a cornerstone of our city’s musical history for more than 80 years ... We cannot allow this vital piece of our rapidly-changing city to be snuffed out.”

Multiple Showbox employees also shared experiences. “I don’t really think you can forget the first time you enter that building. I was completely charmed by it,” said Nathan Donal, who has been working at the Showbox for 14 years. “It’s obvious how integral the Showbox is to our city. It’s an icon.”

Many pointed to a June article in the Seattle Times that noted a high vacancy rate in downtown Seattle specifically, with landlords offering incentives to potential renters.

While nobody spoke in opposition to the ordinance at Monday’s meeting, some have argued that nostalgia shouldn’t get in the way of building more housing—no matter how high-priced.

“The Showbox is a victim, not of crass developer capitalism, but of our failure to recognize the housing supply problem before it became a crisis,” wrote Seattle Transit Blog’s Brent White in a piece titled “Raise the Showbox Several Floors.”

“No, low-income people can’t afford to live in brand-new high-income housing downtown,” wrote Josh Feit in the C is for Crank. “But if no one is building housing for the tens of thousands of workers who are moving here, those people start to compete for existing housing, driving up rents down the line. The only way out of this spiral is to build more housing.”

Feit pointed out that under MHA upzones, Onni would be required to either build or pay for additional affordable housing, too.

Speaking in City Council chambers, Sawant attempted to address these criticisms: “I want to be clear: this is not about affordable housing,” said Sawant, pointing to the downtown vacancy rate as evidence that people can’t afford new-development apartments in the neighborhood. “It is about the community going up against a big developer.”

“I don’t even know what to make of it,” she continued. How is saving the Showbox against density? It’s one of the densest locations in the city.”

Onni did not immediately return a request for comment on the ordinance.

This article has been updated with comments from Historic Seattle.