By Jacob Magit
In July, a developer filed plans to build a high rise apartment building on the site of Seattle’s Showbox Theatre, one of the city’s oldest music venues. There was an immediate movement to save the theatre, which has hosted acts such as Duke Ellington, Muddy Waters, and Lady Gaga. The Seattle City Council quickly approved an ordinance that temporarily added the Showbox to the Pike Place Market Historical District, delaying the theatre’s destruction. In response to the ordinance, attorneys representing the building owner filed a lawsuit against the city claiming the City Council’s action was an illegal spot zone that amounts to an unlawful taking of property.
Seattle has a history of preserving historical buildings and limiting their use. In 1963, plans to redevelop Pike Place Market were publicized. The new development was to feature office towers, apartments, and parking structures. Public outcry led to a voter approved initiative, which established the seven-acre historic Pike Place Market District. The initiative created a commission tasked with preserving the market’s outward appearance and uses. Temporarily incorporating the Showbox into the historic district allows the commission to protect the theatre’s structure and maintain its current use, for a limited time.
Preservation groups have also nominated the Showbox Theatre for landmark status. In Seattle, a building, structure, or object may be eligible for listing as a historic landmark if it is over 25 years old and has some historical, cultural, architectural, engineering, or geographic significance. Landmarks and districts are usually designated through a nomination and confirmation process in which a building’s status is ultimately determined by the Landmarks Preservation Board. The Showbox could, theoretically, get protected status as a culturally-significant building for its role in shaping Seattle’s music scene. The community-based organization Historic Seattle claims the Showbox is “one of the town’s very few extant entertainment venues that can lay claim to having provided local music fans such an astonishing breadth of music… [f]rom the Jazz Age to the hip-hop and grunge eras.”
However, even if the Showbox attains landmark status, it would not necessarily prevent the music venue from shutting down. Seattle’s Landmark Preservation rules mainly apply to aesthetic features of buildings, not their use. This would mean a developer could potentially maintain certain aspects of the building without keeping the venue open or functional. An example of this would be the Ballard Carnegie Library, whose structure is protected while the building now serves as a pub.
There is no clear process for permanently incorporating the Showbox into the Pike Place Market Historical District. Seattle’s municipal code does not lay out a clear method for expanding Historical districts. While the City Council has created historical districts before using ordinances, those measures were accompanied by extensive public meetings, and applied to specific areas, not individual buildings.
The dilemma of what to do with the Showbox reflects an issue within all changing cities of how to best preserve their culture and identity while allowing room for growth. At least in the present, the only sure way to preserve culturally relevant businesses is by placing them in the hands of owners who are committed to their continued existence.