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The Showbox will be considered for landmark status this June

After a highly publicized preservation effort, a hearing date has been set

A photo shows the interior of the Showbox, including a column on the left and the venue’s logo painted in white on a black wall. Courtesy of Historic Seattle

Back in August, Seattle preservation nonprofit Historic Seattle, along with Vanishing Seattle and Friends of Historic Belltown, officially submitted a landmark nomination for music venue the Showbox. The venue across the street from Pike Place Market‘s future had become uncertain as developer Onni planned a 44-story apartment tower for the site—sparking outcry from fans, local musicians, and even Katy Perry.

Now, there’s a date for the Seattle Landmark Preservation Board’s consideration: June 5 at 3:30 p.m.

The venue was built in 1916, although significantly remodeled in 1939 by architect Bjarne Moe, who specialized in theaters—other projects include the Varsity Theater in the University District. In the past 80 years or so, it’s been a music venue, an improv theater, and even a BINGO hall.

“During the research process for the nomination, our team uncovered a trove of information about its architectural and cultural significance,” said Eugenia Woo, Historic Seattle’s director of preservation services, in a statement. “We look forward to sharing more about this iconic place with the [Landmarks Preservation Board] during the nomination meeting and continuing to champion efforts to designate The Showbox as a City of Seattle landmark.”

Onni had planned to submit its own nomination—and while the developer wouldn’t clarify an end goal to Curbed Seattle, it’s a tactic often used by developers to gain preservation incentives for including elements of the building in the finished product. Historic Seattle beat them to the punch with a nomination that calls for preservation of both the exterior and the interior of the building.

“While landmarking offers protections for the physical elements of the property and not its use, this is a critical next step to save the building that houses The Showbox,” said Woo. “We will also continue to push for additional use protections through policy. Ultimately, finding a Showbox-friendly buyer would be the best outcome.”

Meanwhile, a Seattle ordinance that temporarily loops the Showbox parcel into the Pike Place Market Historic District—buying the building some time—is set to expire next month. The Seattle City Council will be hosting a public meeting on a potential six-month extension of the ordinance in early June.

It’s that ordinance that’s perhaps the biggest battleground for the site. It was fast-tracked in case the project vested early—a point where zoning changes wouldn’t affect the project—prompting building owner Roger Forbes to sue the city. Much of the suit was thrown out, although a judge allowed the suit to proceed over councilmembers’ lack of neutrality (for example, councilmember Kshama Sawant hosted rallies over saving the Showbox), the first amendment, equal protection, and due process, along with a claim over a “spot zone.”

Crosscut reported in late April that the city and developers were working toward an agreement to pause proceedings for six months, paving the way for the ordinance extension.

John Tondini, a litigator on the case with firm Byrnes Keller Cromwell, told Curbed Seattle over email that no standstill presently exists. “We do not see a standstill or settlement as near or likely,” said Tondini. “We have not seen any specific buyer group emerging from the City or its affiliates. The city has talked since August of last year about finding or forming a buyer group, but nothing concrete has come together. So we will continue to litigate to invalidate the City’s land grab.”

Tondini also referred to a 2007 letter written by the Seattle Department of Neighborhoods to the Showbox building’s ownership stating that the building had been altered too much to be eligible for landmark status, allowing any future development to move forward.

While Tondini denies that his side was even close to a standstill, city councilmember Lisa Herbold gives a different version of events after seeing coverage. She says representatives of Showbox ownership approached her in October 2018 to approach a standstill.

“The intent of this agreement, as initiated by the representatives of the Showbox owner, was to create time for the specific purpose of identifying a stakeholders group, potential preservation options that might include purchase or a long-term lease, and potential funding sources necessary to exercise an option,” said Herbold. “Historic Seattle were participants in these discussions. Historic Seattle had helpfully agreed to postpone further pursuit of Landmark Preservation designation for the Showbox, in a show of good faith towards the promise that future negotiations during a standstill agreement could provide.”

Herbold nodded to the Stranger’s reporting on the issue, and called the owner’s current position “disappointing.”

The city, reports Erica C. Barnett, has also secured a consultant to review a potential permanent inclusion in the historic district.

Onni did not immediately return a request for comment.

This article initially reported that a lawsuit with the city was proceeding on one count and that the parcel owner and the city had reached a temporary stay in litigation. Counsel has reached out to let us know more than one count is still active and that there is no such stay. It has also been updated with comments from city councilmember Lisa Herbold.