Can Councilmember Kshama Sawant save The Showbox before its too late?
Can Councilmember Kshama Sawant save the Showbox before it's too late? Lester Black

Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant’s proposal to save the Showbox by expanding the Pike Place Market Historical District to include the historic venue passed its first hurdle Monday, when the council agreed they would fast track consideration of the ordinance.

The council voted to send Sawant’s legislation to their Finance Committee for further consideration with an assurance that they would bring the proposal back to the full council for a vote in a week, on Monday Aug. 13.

The clock is ticking on Sawant’s proposal; if the developer moves far enough along in the permitting process they could achieve “vested” property rights, making any subsequent historical district changes irrelevant to saving the venue, according to Sawant.

Sawant got some help from Ben Gibbard Monday, the lead singer of Deathcab For Cutie and The Postal Service, who told the council that losing the venue would be a mistake.

“The Showbox is not just a musical venue. It’s a cornerstone of this city’s cultural history for almost eighty years,” Gibbard said.

Ben Gibbard, lead singer of Deathcab For Cutie, tells the City Council to preserve The Showbox theater.
Ben Gibbard, lead singer of Deathcab For Cutie, tells the City Council to preserve the Showbox theater. Lester Black

Thousands of Seattleites rallied around the Showbox after news broke ten days ago that Vancouver’s Onni Group planned to demolish the venue and build a 44-story, $100-million apartment building in its place. An online petition to save the Showbox has over 89,000 signatures and international musicians voiced their support for the venue, including Questlove from The Roots and Duff McKagan, the bassist for the band Guns N’ Roses.

Sawant’s proposal to expand the historical district, which is distinctly different from giving the building a landmark designation, appears to be the strongest protection for the venue. The city’s landmark designation only protects the physical aspects of the preserved building, not how a building is used, so theoretically a developer could gut the venue even if the building is given a landmark designation.

However, the inclusion of the Showbox in the Pike Place Market Historical District would put its use under the oversight of the market’s Historical Commission, which has the ability to regulate how buildings are used in the area.

The Pike Place Market Historical District currently ends a few hundred feet west of the Showbox on the other side of First Avenue from the historic nightclub. Sawant’s proposal would expand the district east across First Avenue between Union Street and Virginia Street, including more than three blocks of buildings in addition to the venue. Sawant said her proposal would grant a temporary, two-year expansion that would need to be made permanent at a later date.

Sawant said in order to protect the historic venue the council would need to pass the expansion of the district before the council adjourns for an August break later in the month, otherwise the developer could have “vested” property rights that supersede any expansion of the historical district.

Councilmember Rob Johnson said the vesting question was not as urgent as Sawant described.

“The Department of Construction and Inspections, as referenced by my colleague, have told us that the earliest that anyone can vest would be in early September, late August potentially is the next meeting they could have,” Johnson said. “I think this is a worthy cause and worthy of discussion but I don’t think we should make these decisions hastily without all of the facts in front of us.”

A spokesperson for the city’s Department of Construction and Inspections did not return The Stranger’s call Monday asking for clarification on when vesting rights might be given to the building’s developer.

Sawant questioned why Johnson would require slowing down protections for the Showbox when the council rushed through repealing the contentious head tax earlier, which would have generated millions for affordable housing by taxing large businesses like Amazon.

“I agree this is a complex decision, I have no problem having a committee discussion this week as long as we bring the ordinance to an actual vote with the full council next Monday,” Sawant said. “For the council members that are saying this is an important civic discussion and it should not be hastily done, well it didn’t seem to bother you to hastily repeal the Amazon tax.”

The council moved so quickly to repeal the head tax, which Johnson was in support of repealing, that they probably broke the law in the process.

Naomi West, the director of philanthropy for the nonprofit preservation group Historic Seattle, said they are in full support of Sawant’s proposal.

“The boundaries shown in CM Sawant’s proposal today align with our vision for an expanded historic district and would protect key parts of the area, including the Showbox building,” West said. “Expansion would not guarantee use still, but would provide protections because the Pike Place Market Historical Commission has authority over change in use in buildings included in the district. So, a change could be proposed, but the commission could vote it down.”

The Showbox is currently managed by A.E.G., an international corporation worth over $12 billion, which makes it ironic that Sawant, a socialist, is working to protect one of the company's biggest assets in Seattle. Sawant told me after Monday’s meeting that this was just one step in a long-term fight.

"We have to fight hard to win the preservation of the Showbox now, but as a socialist, I never stop with any one victory," Sawant said. "I see no reason why this movement should not go forward and this should be a publicly owned venue. The City of Seattle should own this; the employees at the Showbox should be City of Seattle employees. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t do that."