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Judge tosses Showbox-preserving temporary zoning

Removing the City Council-implemented liferaft puts the venue’s future in question—but it’s still being considered for landmark status

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.
The Showbox.
Courtesy of Historic Seattle

Emotions have been running high in Seattle over the Showbox, a popular music venue, after developer Onni Group filed for permits to build an apartment on the site last July—which would require demolishing the building.

Since then, there have been a variety of calls to save the venue, but just two concrete, bureaucratic efforts: a landmark nomination that argues for preservation of the entire venue, and a temporary zoning change to shelter the venue in the meantime.

As of Friday morning, the latter is off the table: King County Superior Court Judge Patrick Oishi deemed the zoning change, which was implemented by City Council ordinance, illegal. The decision was in response to a lawsuit filed by the venue owner group against the city for what they alleged was an illegal “spot zone.”

The City Council first passed the ordinance, which temporarily loops the Showbox into the Pike Place Market Historic District, in August, but just voted to extend the ordinance by six months earlier this month.

“We thank Judge Oishi for his ruling today that the City Council’s ordinance concerning 1426 First Avenue is illegal and void,” says Aaron Pickus, spokesperson for the ownership group, in a statement—they’ve been avoiding saying “The Showbox,” preferring to reference the venue’s address. “The owners of 1426 First Avenue will now consider next steps concerning the use of this property and will also continue to engage with the Landmark Preservation Board during their review process.”

The ownership group has alleged inconsistencies in the city’s treatment of the Showbox parcel, and points 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. Pickus also notes that the property has been rezoned several times, most recently in 2017’s downtown mandatory housing affordability rezones, allowing additional development, and that the Pike Place Market Historic District has never included the property in its boundaries before, despite two revisions in the 1980s.

Nobody on the Seattle City Council (including councilmembers Lisa Herbold and Kshama Sawant, who have been at the forefront of the effort) was available to comment before press time. But one councilmember was the lone vote against extending the temporary zone: Abel Pacheco, who filled in for Rob Johnson representing District 4 after he left to join NHL Seattle. Pacheco wasn’t serving on council at the time of the first vote.

While Pacheco said he “appreciate[s] the nostalgia” surrounding the Showbox, he believes expanding the historic district is the wrong tool for preservation. He said there are “major tradeoffs” to preserving the Showbox, including losing out on the opportunity to have the 442 apartment units Onni planned for the site, in addition to “up to $5 million in affordable housing payments” through the MHA program, which exchanges additional building size for either on-site affordable housing or payments toward affordable housing. (The historic district is exempted from MHA rezones.)

While that seems like a dead end for Showbox preservation, the landmark nomination, filed by preservation organizations Historic Seattle, Friends of Historic Belltown, and Vanishing Seattle is still active. The Landmarks Preservation Board unanimously voted to approve the nomination earlier this month, and will hold its final designation vote at its Wednesday, July 17 meeting.

As the battle in official channels stretches on, the venue has sparked an emotional rallying cry. Even Katy Perry signed onto a petition to preserve the venue last year, and Macklemore and Pearl Jam alike have been boosting the preservation effort.

But while attachment to the venue is sentimental and personal, ultimately the venue’s fate will be decided by official procedure.

“Today’s ruling by Judge Patrick Oishi was disappointing and we did not expect there would be a decision today on the motions for summary judgment,” says Eugenia Woo, Director of Preservation Services for Historic Seattle, in a statement. While the group was not party to the lawsuit, Woo was present for the court ruling. “The ruling was about land use and not about whether the Showbox is a significant music venue and cultural resource worth preserving. We’ve always said that saving The Showbox would require a multi-prong strategy.”

And both ownership and preservationists agree: Someone with an interest in keeping the venue around purchasing the property would be the best path toward preservation.

“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 after the landmark vote. At the same time, Pickus noted that “the owner has and will always consider any serious purchaser that offers fair market-value for the property.”

Woo says that Historic Seattle has “serious interest in purchasing the property,” which would add the Showbox to a collection of eight historic properties owned and operated by the nonprofit.

“We hope to add The Showbox property to our portfolio so that it may continue its long history as a significant music venue and cultural space—it cannot be replicated or replaced,” says Woo.

The Showbox 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.

It’s been a music venue for 23 years, and is currently operated by international corporation AEG.