What's Happening With the Effort to Save the Showbox and Why it Should Frighten Seattle Business Owners

The Seattle City Council advanced an ordinance to save the theater, but how they're doing it raises big questions
 
 

This story originally ran on SCC Insight.

On Wednesday, the Seattle City Council gave a master class in what happens when a land-use bill is rushed through the legislative process.

The bill in question, introduced on Monday by Council member Kshama Sawant in an effort to “Save the Showbox” music venue from a developer’s proposal to raze it and build a 44-story apartment tower, was voted out of committee and forwarded to the full Council for a final vote as soon as next Monday. That fulfills a commitment the Council made two days ago when it sent the bill to committee (over Sawant’s protests) rather than directly to the full Council for a final vote. But the discussion preceding the committee action today made it clear to all involved that the Council doesn’t understand the consequences of its actions, it knows it doesn’t, and it’s moving ahead anyway.

The sense of urgency on this bill comes from the pending construction permit of Onni Development, the Vancouver-based developer that is in the process of purchasing the Showbox property to build the apartment tower. As of Monday, Council member Sawant was warning that the project could “vest” under current city laws before the end of the month, at which point, it would be nearly impossible for the city to save the Showbox. And with the Council in recess for the last two weeks of August, the window of opportunity for legislative action looked small indeed.

However, this afternoon SDCI Director Nathan Torgelson clarified that his department has scheduled a pre-submittal meeting with Onni for October 18, and the project won’t vest until Onni submits the full “Early Design Guidance” paperwork after that meeting. Yet that hasn’t stopped Sawant from pushing for her ordinance to be voted on this coming Monday; at least some of her colleagues, however, seem to want to take a more contemplative approach now that they have two months.

Committee chair Sally Bagshaw convened several of the stakeholders for this afternoon’s meeting, including SDCI, the Department of Neighborhoods, the Pike Place Market Historical Commission, the Friends of the MarketHistoric Seattle, the Mayor’s Office, and the Pike Place Market Preservation and Development Authority. Notably missing: Onni Development, The Showbox, and the current owner of the building, Roger Forbes.

An aside: Sawant has picked some very strange bedfellows in her effort to thwart Onni and preserve the Showbox. Roger Forbes is best known as the strip-joint king of Seattle and owner of a national chain of Deja Vu strip clubs. The Showbox is currently run by AEG, a massive media empire and a subsidiary of the even more massive Anschutz corporation controlled by billionaire Philip Anschutz. Anschutz is a financial supporter of conservative political causes and groups that are anti-gay, anti-transgender, and anti-abortion. If Onni’s development plan is stopped, the Showbox remains in the hands of Forbes and AEG.

As I wrote earlier this week, moving the Showbox (and potentially other properties) into the Pike Place Market Historical District puts it under the purview of the Historical Commission, which must approve nearly every facet of businesses in the district including physical features of buildings (down to replacing windows), ownership changes, and use changes (e.g. if a business that currently sells purses decides it wants to sell shoes too, the Commission must approve it). The Commission has current written guidelines that drive its decision-making today, but they are written around the market itself; if additional properties are added that are outside the market, the Commission will need to write a new set of guidelines for those properties.

As Commission staff member Heather McAuliffe explained Wednesday, that’s no simple process because it must follow the city’s Administrative Procedures Ordinance: it will involve a public hearing, creating a draft, running that draft by the city’s law department for review, and further revisions as necessary. McAuliffe’s estimate was that it would take at least six months. In the meantime, the Showbox building and its tenants would still be subject to Commission approval for any changes — including the pending sale of the property to Onni, and any substantive business changes that the Showbox might want to make. And McAuliffe couldn’t even begin to guess what it would do to the Commission’s workload, especially since the current Commission only has 8 of 12 positions filled due to inaction by the Council and the Mayor’s Office.

The Pike Place Market PDA representative, Mary Bacarella, expressed her own concerns with Sawant’s bill: she explained that the PDA is responsible for ushering new and existing businesses through the Commission’s process, but she has no idea what it would mean to have to support a new set of properties and businesses outside the Market itself.

One amendment adopted today somewhat lessened those issues; offered by Bagshaw and Herbold, it scaled back the expansion of the District to just the Showbox building. However, while that lessened the impact, it also removed any pretense that the bill had any purpose other than to thwart Onni’s redevelopment of the Showbox — a highly suspect use of the legislative process to target a specific company’s otherwise-legal redevelopment project. And let’s not forget that only last year the Council approved the MHA rezone for downtown, rezoning the Showbox site to add height and MHA requirements specifically to encourage a development such as Onni’s proposal.

Another amendment that was adopted, offered by Mosqueda, makes it somewhat worse by scaling back the  “study period” for the interim zone expansion from two years to ten months. With McAuliffe’s admission that developing the Commission’s new rules alone would take at least six months, it would be very challenging to finish a real study in ten months. Nevertheless, Mosqueda emphasized that she wanted to put pressure on the stakeholders to move quickly to find a permanent resolution that would preserve the Showbox (while also noting that the Council could always extend the study period at a later date).

There was some discussion of other options for preserving the site. One is to add the Showbox to the city’s Historic Theater District, a non-contiguous collection of theaters downtown (the Paramount, the Moore, the 5th Avenue, ACT, and Town Hall). That would provide some protection for the physical structure, but not the use of the building; also, the Showbox would need to be a non-profit in order to join the Historic Theater District. An effort to grant the Showbox landmark status would also protect some or all of the physical structure, but again, not the use; today the organization Historic Seattle filed a landmark petition on the building, and it’s expected that Onni will follow suit; however, it has been nominated and rejected before.

A better option, though equally difficult, is to find a different buyer for the property instead of Onni that is willing to continue its use as a music venue. Historic Seattle’s Eugenia Woo today expressed strong interest in partnering with a group of musicians to do so, but didn’t give any sign as to whether the organization had the financial resources to approach Forbes with a competing offer for the property – or how long it would take to pull together a consortium, the money, and a bid.

The property itself poses issues. It is on the city’s list of buildings with unreinforced masonry, and is cited as “high risk.”

Several of the Council members recognized that short-cutting the legislative process for this ordinance carries risks. O’Brien noted that they will discuss the bill with the City Attorney’s Office on Monday (presumably in executive session during the morning Council Briefing); he also said that he would prefer to hold a public hearing for the bill, add some more specifics about what should be “studied” related to expanding the Pike Place Market Historical District, and potentially look at adding back in some other properties adjacent to the existing District boundaries.

Nevertheless, they passed the bill out of committee on a 6-0 vote (Bagshaw, Gonzalez, Mosqueda, O’Brien, Herbold, and Sawant), so it will come back around as soon as Monday — even though at this point they understand very little of the impact it will have on any of the stakeholders, whether any of their other options are feasible, or whether the bill is even legal. 

They also don’t have a plan for what will happen over the next ten months, though Gonzalez volunteered this afternoon to write one as a companion resolution to Sawant’s ordinance. That resolution almost certainly won’t be done by Monday, and may end up being the gating factor for approving the ordinance. The Council also has not provided any funding for the study of expanding the District, the presumptive reason for setting up an interim “study area” expansion zone. That is an unfunded mandate for the Historic Commission.

Apart from the legislative, logistic and procedural mess that Sawant’s bill to save the Showbox represents, it’s also a bone-chilling precedent in that it attempts to restrict and mandate the use of the Showbox property as a music venue in perpetuity — and Gonzalez stated explicitly this afternoon that it was their legislative intent to do exactly that. 

It should frighten every business owner in Seattle, large and small, to witness the Council pass legislation whose sole intent is to single out a specific business and thwart its perfectly legal development plan because that plan is politically unpopular with the Council’s constituency. The City Council has already been fighting a persistent complaint that it is anti-business; today’s move cements that reputation, as it undermines any sense of security in a company’s ability to control its future without capricious. politically-motivated government interference.

In the meantime, the Mayor is on it. We’ll see if she has any better luck going directly to Onni.

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