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Two Showbox preservation efforts move forward

It’s officially nominated as a landmark—and still in a temporary historic district

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

It’s been a wild year for the Showbox, a longtime music venue by Pike Place Market: In July 2018, developer Onni Group filed for permits to build an apartment on the site, which would require demolishing the building. The next month, a group of historic preservation and submitted a landmark nomination for music venue the Showbox and the Seattle City Council passed an ordinance temporarily looping it into the Pike Place Market Historic District.

Both of those efforts got a boost in the last week. The Landmarks Preservation Board voted unanimously to approve the building’s nomination Wednesday, and the Seattle City Council voted 8-1 to extend the historic district ordinance by six months on Monday.

However: The board still has to vote on final approval of the landmark, and the city still has to contend with a lawsuit over the original ordinance.

“All of the Pike Place Market directly benefits from The Showbox,” said Historic Seattle philanthropy director Naomi West in a statement as the extension ordinance passed council committee. “Because of proximity, a thriving Showbox is inextricably linked to a thriving Market.”

“There’s an 80-year history filled with local impact,” added West.

Local musicians have responded to the rallying cry to save the venue. Even Katy Perry signed onto a petition to preserve the venue last year, and both Ben Haggerty (better-known as Macklemore) and Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready prepared statements for the Landmarks Preservation Board.

“As our city continues to grow in density, it’s imperative that we protect the spaces that give Seattle its cultural identity,” said Haggerty’s statement, delivered by Historic Seattle. “This is true of The Showbox, and it’s true of other important places in the city, especially in communities where displacement and gentrification are dramatically reshaping neighborhoods. If we value our musical heritage and want to leave the next generation with a piece of authentic Seattle, this is our fight.”

In response to the efforts, the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation added the Showbox to its “Most Endangered Places” list last week. But the building’s ownership continues to—carefully—cry foul.

“We are committed to our role in the due diligence led by the City’s Landmarks Preservation Board, including sharing previous notice from the City of Seattle that 1426 First Avenue does not qualify as a historic landmark,” said spokesperson Aaron Pickus, referring to the Showbox. Pickus added that the owners “will continue to respect the role of fairly-applied historical preservation in our city.”

The ownership group referred 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.

Owner Roger Forbes is currently embroiled in a lawsuit with the city over the temporary district ordinance, citing councilmembers’ lack of neutrality (for example, councilmember Kshama Sawant hosted rallies over saving the Showbox), the first amendment, equal protection, and due process. The suit alleges the process to “spot zone”—i.e., zoning a small parcel of property in a way that’s wildly different from the area and divergent from city planning—“ignor[es] the set law and process for zoning changes.”

However, added Pickus, “the owner has and will always consider any serious purchaser that offers fair market-value for the property.”

“As we’ve said since the beginning of this fight, the best outcome is a preservation-friendly buyer,” said Historic Seattle Executive Director Kji Kelly in a statement, “and that’s why we stepped up to say we’re ready, willing, and able to take ownership of the building to keep The Showbox thriving as a venue for the next 80 years. We remain eager to work with the current property owner to make a deal happen.”

Along with Vanishing Seattle and Friends of Historic Belltown, Historic Seattle submitted the landmark nomination for the Showbox. 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.

Onni had planned to submit its own nomination—and while the developer hasn’t clarified its end goal, 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.

The Landmarks Preservation Board will hold its final vote on the Showbox’s designation at its Wednesday, July 17 meeting.