The Showbox victory demonstrates the value of good old fashioned people power: our take on what happened


While the City Council’s unanimous decision to add the Showbox to the Market Historic District was not permanent, the theater gets a 10-month reprieve and time to come up with a longterm fix

– But what about dozens of existing low cost and affordable apartment buildings; many are historic including three now under landmark review?

We have to chuckle about the Showbox victory.  We’ll get to why in a second.  While it’s not a done deal – it’s an important grassroots victory because it shows that developers and big business don’t always get their way and people power still can carry the day.  This was especially refreshing coming soon on the heels of the City Council’s sudden repeal of the office head tax – a near total capitulation to big business.

However, the Council’s decision to wrap the Market Historic District boundary around the Showbox will last only ten months and it’s not clear, when pressured by development interests, whether the Council has the gumption to come up with a longterm fix that saves the venue.  Again it’s people power that will determine the final outcome.

The developer, the Onni Group from Vancouver B. C., is seeking to build a 400′ tower on the site.  They’ve hired one of the state’s best land use attorneys (on the developer side) to represent their interest, Jack McCullough, who negotiated the HALA “Grand Bargain” that grants developers enormously lucrative upzones.  In return they’ll pay a nominal housing fee or include a handful of so-called “affordable units” in their projects priced hundreds of dollars a month above what truly low income people can afford.

Likely Mr. McCullough is busy right now prowling city hall to negotiate a similar lucrative arrangement for the Onni Group.  And, as in the case the Grand Bargain, no doubt he’s seeking the same kind of “win-win” arrangement – one that’s a clear win for his client but not necessarily for the community or one that saves the Showbox.

In many instances, conditions for compliance with historic preservation may require a developer to save only the facade – something that happened essentially on the site of the old Bathhouse and Public Pool on 2nd Avenue just north of Virginia Street (west side) circa 1995.  Or it may be nothing more than keeping a record of the old structure like a few pictures and artifacts of the old building in the lobby of the new structure.

One option Mr. McCullough might be seeking for his client could be allowing the developer to build up and over and around the Showbox venue saving at least some or all of the interior.  Councilmember Mosqueda’s recent comments suggests this is her idea of historic preservation.  There also are rumors out there suggesting McCullough is floating the idea of simply tearing down the old Showbox and replacing it with a brand new venue built into the new 400′ building.  (I wonder if this prospect could entice some “Save the Showbox” supporters like those in the music business – especially if the new venue offered space for bigger crowds.)

But back to what I’m chuckling about?  Well, it was not long ago that the council voted to raise heights where the Showbox is located to 400′ signaling their clear interest in a massive redevelopment on that site.   Oops. Now councilmembers appear to have flip-flopped (kind of like their flip-flop on the head tax only in reverse).  It serves to vividly demonstrate that in the end land use and housing policy rests on political bedrock and when it moves so does land use.

In the face of widespread outcry especially from a fairly powerful constituency – the music business and their fans, the city council suddenly gets religion – something that hasn’t happened when it comes to saving the aged and historically important Hahn Building next door.  That site also was recently upzoned and developers have announced plans to tear it down.  But so far, councilmembers have ignored pleas to save it.  Alas, there’s no Eddie Vedder (of Pearl Jam fame) urging 50,000 of their fans to call the City Council for the Hahn building.

Since 2013, 4100 units of existing housing, including many older affordable and often historically important buildings have been torn down by the dozens for luxury and market rate housing.  Hundreds of low income households, disproportionately people of color, were pushed from their homes and we lost a huge chunk of the city’s historic character.  We wonder if our councilmembers ever will get some religion here and come up with ways to prevent these continued losses.

A few years back, we set out to save the Yesler Terrace community from the wrecking ball, especially the 500 plus decent structurally sound homes on the site – the last of the City’s historic public housing garden communities.   The 70-plus year old community and especially most of the homes there in fact met necessary criteria for historic designation.  The landmarks board, however, narrowly voted to deny it that designation.

Despite our efforts, including resident leaders from the community like Kristen O’Donnell, the board chose only to give an historic designation to the old steam power plant and the homes were razed – a rather hallow victory for us though we saved a bit of Seattle’s history.  Funny we were never invited to the ribbon cutting and grand gala when it was re-opened by the housing authority and described as a unique “adaptive reuse of the historic 1940’s era Yesler Terrace Steam Plant “.  Geez I think they even won some architectural awards for it.

And by the way, currently there are at least three low income apartment buildings subject to review by the landmarks board right now – The Franklin, Wayne, and Highland Apartments – among several other proposed designations.  However to date there has been no groundswell, no Eddie Vedder, no outcry as yet to save these important buildings housing about 100 lower income households.  In fact, as is often the case, it is the developer paying an experienced consultant – a hired gun – to submit the application for designation for the sole purpose of laying out all the reason’s why it’s not historic and to ensure this little matter won’t delay their demolition and redevelopment plans.

We applaud Sawant’s leadership in this important effort to save the Showbox but as we’ve reported in past stories about her tenure on the Council, she’s been AWOL when it comes to helping us prevent the continued accelerated loss of our existing low income housing stock.  And she’s been AWOL so far when it comes to openly challenging the HALA-MHA upzone plan that will set off even more displacement in our neighborhoods.

There are rumors Sawant, fresh from the justifiable kudos she received leading the Showbox victory, may show more leadership on the upzoning-displacement front in the future.  We certainly hope so.  To date, only Councilmember Herbold has consistently sought solutions to housing displacement, and cultural and small business displacement. CM O’Brien, while backing the HALA-MHA upzones to the hilt, nevertheless has shown some interest in accompanying those upzones with measures to prevent more displacement of residents and small businesses.

Regarding the rest of the City Council, getting any of them to do the right thing whether historic or low income housing preservation – I think it’s going to take a lot of convincing along the lines of the “Save the Showbox” campaign – if that can be replicated.  The on-going appeal of the HALA-MHA upzones by 29 community and housing groups could also force the Council as a whole to address the displacement issue as well.

Short of those things, however, it’s may require throwing a number of CM’s out of office.   While CM’s Mosqueda and Gonzalez are not up for re-election in the Fall of 2019, I’m specifically thinking of CM’s Harrell, Johnson, Juarez, and Bagshaw up for re-election then.  They need to be replaced.  (Rumors are flying that some of these CM’s are not planning on running for re-election but nothing is confirmed). Election time may be the only way we will find a consistent majority who truly care about our neighborhoods, their character, history and our existing affordable housing stock.

Keep in mind the rapid erosion of Seattle’s character and affordability that we are seeing today isn’t the product of “the market taking its inevitable course”.  It’s the result of conscious decisions by the pro-developer majority down at City Hall repeatedly giving away the farm via upzoning, tens of millions in “MFTE tax breaks” and outright developer subsidies masquerading in the city budget as “capital improvements”. (like over a billion of our tax dollars going to “improvements” serving Vulcan, Amazon, and now Google in South Lake Union).

Developers and Big Business long ago abandoned market solutions for their own particular brand of “socialism” – the kind where only their costs are socialized and not their inflated profits.  It’s up to the community working together to change that equation.


About John V. Fox

Director, Seattle Displacement Coalition
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