Seattle City Council insulates Showbox venue

Seattle Showbox
The Seattle City Council passed an ordinance to include the Showbox concert theater within the Pike Place Historic District, preventing it from being torn down and replaced. Photo: Joe Mabel

The Seattle City Council voted this week to prevent the Seattle Showbox concert venue from being torn down and replaced by apartments. Proponents of the ordinance argue the music spot increases Seattle’s attractiveness for bringing in tourists and music lovers and is a symbol for the history created there by artists performing in Seattle.

On Aug. 6, Councilmember Kshama Sawant introduced an ordinance which would designate the Showbox as part of the Pike Place Historic District.  The move would place the location under the Pike Place Historical Commission’s control, which is responsible for managing any construction and new business within the district.

Onni, a developer interested in the site, announced plans to tear down the concert venue and replace it with a 440-unit apartment tower, however the Landmarks Preservation Board denied the plan due to previous remodeling.

On August 13, the council voted unanimously to approve the proposed ordinance. During public testimony, Seattle residents shared memories created at the site and spoke to the effect the venue has had on Seattle’s music history and the economic benefits it has brought the surrounding area.

Tony Kay, representing Save the Showbox, spoke to the importance of the venue for Seattle’s history, and for the city’s ability to market itself as a music destination for travelers and music fans.

“In a city that is constantly changing and a cityscape overwhelmed by massive, shiny, faceless glass buildings that homogenize this very lovely city, the Showbox is a living reminder of Seattle’s cultural and musical history and of the city’s vital, relevant and crucial place in the world consciousness of a music mecca on par with Liverpool, New York, Austin and Nashville.”

Founded in 1939, the venue has hosted acts such as Muddy Waters, Prince and Soundgarden.

“Rescuing this building that has housed so much cultural and musical history and enriched the lives of literally hundreds of thousands of music fans isn’t just giving in to emotional sentiment, it is sending a loud and clear signal to the world that the city of Seattle cares more about its cultural and musical history than its development dollars.”

Before the vote, Councilmember Lisa Herbold told the public that the city’s arts office released a creation, activation and preservation (CAP) report which highlighted the importance of the Showbox decision for areas outside of its immediate area.

“That report says that despite cultural spaces’ role in strengthening neighborhoods, creating and maintaining these spaces in strong real estate markets can be extremely difficult. The older, smaller, more eccentric spaces that often house cultural uses and small businesses are particularly vulnerable to development-driven displacement.”

Herbold also said the site developer agreed to delay vesting to give the council time to delay its vote.

“Although the hold would provide the opportunity for a developer to develop another plan, the description I’ve heard of the plan they are working on calling it a win-win solution gives me great pause.”

The developer’s portrayal of the ‘win-win’ effort was one that could “sustain the performance history of the Showbox’s history into the future.”

Committee meeting attendees booed as Herbold explained that ‘sustaining the performance history’ would likely result in a space within a new building dedicated to live performance rather than protecting the structure.

Now that the council has approved the ordinance, its members will have 10 months’ time to consider how the property will be part of the market, first on an interim basis.

Councilmember Sally Bagshaw said it will be up to the Pike Place Market, its tenants, board members, those within the music community, property owners and businesses to be a part of the discussion on how to preserve the site and its assets.

Bagshaw added that keeping the venue will have a “profound” effect on the Pike Place Market as well as everything that interacts with it.

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