The Stranger has thrown its election night parties at the Showbox for years. 2008 and 2012 were a lot more fun than 2016.
The Stranger has thrown its election night parties at the Showbox for years. 2008 and 2012 were a lot more fun than 2016. Kelly O

When Jay Middleton put a petition on Wednesday calling for the protection of downtown Seattle's Showbox Theater, he didn't expect many people to sign it.

"I thought like a hundred would sign it," Middleton said. "I didn't talk to any of my media or radio connections, I just let it be organic. If people really care, and people really want to make a change, they will share this."

By all accounts, people really care. His petition to make the nearly 80-year-old venue a "historical landmark" had well over 60,000 signatures by Friday afternoon. Deathcab For Cutie and Macklemore posted links to the petition on Twitter. Meanwhile, local politicians also expressed support for the venue, including King County Executive Dow Constantine, who wrote on Facebook that "We should not tolerate losing places like this. We will not."

The fight to save the storied theater from a developer's wrecking ball has begun.

It's going to be an uphill battle.

That doesn't mean the theater's fate has been sealed. As I wrote after news broke on Wednesday, the city has not granted the developer a building or demolition permit. The building's developer, Vancouver's Onni Group, only filed an initial plan to raze the theater and put a 44-story, $100 million apartment building in its place. There's still plenty of public meetings and city decisions before a wrecking ball can take down the theater.

But exactly how the theater can be preserved in its current form not completely clear.

Ironically, the developer themselves are going to start the landmark preservation process that Middleton's petition is calling for, according to Erin Doherty, a landmarks coordinator for the city's Office of Neighborhoods. The landmark process is somewhat inevitable, so it's in the developer's interest to get it over with and have a decision as soon as possible.

The Onni Group has another incentive to get the landmark process over with: Winning a landmark designation for the facility will be difficult and even if a landmark protection is granted that won't necessarily keep music on the Showbox's stage.

The first hurdle for the Showbox will be getting past a city survey that deemed the building insufficient for historic protection. In 2007, the city inventoried hundreds of buildings across Seattle to determine their historical significance and eligibility for landmark preservation. When the surveyors looked at the Showbox they decided the building "appears to lacks (sic) sufficient physical integrity to convey architectural and/or historic significance."

The surveyors gave the Showbox a "Category 4" rating, which means the building has been so "altered that they would not qualify as Seattle landmarks."

This 2007 evaluation does not stop the building from becoming a historic landmark in 2018. It does mean that the building won't automatically be referred to the Landmark Preservation Board, but because the property owner is already applying that automatic referral is not a concern.

"The property is eligible for consideration as a landmark," Doherty said. "We understand that representatives for the property are preparing a landmark nomination application for the Landmarks Board’s consideration."

This Category 4 designation does make it harder to achieve the landmark status, though, because the city staff that reviews the applications is less likely to recommend approval to the board that votes on the applications, according to Susan Boyle, an architect at the firm BOLA that has worked in historic preservation in the city since 1981.

"It just means that the staff is not going to recommend it as a landmark," Boyle said.

The board still has the power to go against a staff recommendation, so it is difficult but not impossible to win landmark designation for the Showbox.

But that might not matter, because even with landmark designation the developer is not required to maintain the property as a theater. When the board gives landmark designation to a structure, the city then works out a plan with the property owner that identifies what specific aspects of the building need to be preserved and how the property owner could modify the structure in the future. The Showbox's marquee on 1st Avenue or the pedestal columns inside its ballroom could be required to be preserved, but the city's landmark designation does not provide a way to dictate how a building is used.

Eugenia Woo, the director of preservation services for the nonprofit Historic Seattle, said the building's owner could still decide how to use the space even if it is given landmark status.

"The landmark designation does not protect the use," Woo said. "So let’s say, hypothetically, it does get landmarked, the exterior and maybe part of the interior, the Landmarks Board has no control of the use. So it could stay the Showbox as its current use or it could be turned into something else and the Landmarks Board would not have purview over that."

The one place the city does protect how historic buildings are used is in the Pike Place Market Historic District. That prevents the market from drastically departing from how it has historically operated—the city wouldn't let a row of t-shirt vendors replace all of Pike Place's cafes and bakeries. But the Showbox is outside of the market's historic district by a few hundred feet, meaning if the entire Showbox building is protected as a landmark, and even getting that is going to be a struggle, that won't stop the developer from using the building for something other than concerts.

The best guarantee for keeping the theater might be if a rich person (Hi Jeff Bezos!) or a group of rich people are able to purchase the property outright and keep it as a theater. But that is going to take a lot of money. The county estimates the land the Showbox sits on is worth $12.3 million, and if the Onni Group plans to put a $100-million building on top of that land, they are likely to require a lot of money to back out of this project.

Woo said she hopes the developer is paying attention to the public dialogue about the building and is open to some kind of compromise.

"I’m hoping that the developer is listening and watching and reading and do they really want to be the ones who tear down a cultural icon of the city? Do they care?" Woo said.

And even if the developer isn't receptive to compromise, Woo said she still thinks there's a possibility the venue can be saved.

"I wouldn’t write the obituary for the Showbox yet, you never know," Woo said. "I’ve been involved with this field for a long time and the Landmarks Ordinance is a strong one and it’s done a lot of good. It is an uphill battle but I don’t think it’s impossible."