Luxury skyscrapers are a menace to music venues in Seattle. Just look at the historic Showbox nightclub near Pike Place Market, which is under direct threat of demolition, even after an intervention from the Seattle City Council. Glass towers and music venues just can't seem to coexist—but what if that weren't the case?
If you listen to the promises of the owner of El Corazón, you might think that there is a way for skyscrapers and music venues to live in harmony. The venue's owner thinks he can demolish El Corazón, a place that was integral to the early grunge movement, and rebuild it at the base of two glass skyscrapers.
A rowdy rock venue at the base of luxury towers? It might not sound possible, but before we get to that, let's revisit why the Showbox is suddenly in danger of destruction.
In August of last year, the city council brought the Showbox under the purview of the Pike Place Market Historical District after news broke that a developer planned to bulldoze the 80-year-old music venue and replace it with 44 stories of luxury apartments. The council's move was only temporary—it kept the venue in the historical district for only six months—but it effectively blocked the redevelopment plans. Protections for the venue were looking strong this June after the venue was successfully nominated for landmark status and the council extended the building's inclusion in the historical district for another six months. But now the entire preservation effort has been thrown into serious jeopardy.
On June 21, a judge in King County Superior Court ruled that the council's ordinance adding the Showbox to the historical district was illegal because it unfairly targeted one specific property owner. The judge nullified the ordinance in his decision, meaning the Showbox's protections have vanished with the strike of the gavel. The city has until July 21 to decide if it wants to appeal the decision. A spokesperson for the city attorney's office said on June 28 that they were still deliberating.
That means it's now open season for redeveloping the Showbox. Meanwhile, the city has already granted the owner of El Corazón a demolition permit.
But the story of El Corazón might have a slightly less depressing ending.
Dana Sims, who co-owns both El Corazón and the building it's located in, is now in the early stages of the development process. He has released early renderings that show two glass towers with a new El Corazón nightclub at the base. The pictures show a music venue with an entrance facing east toward Interstate 5, as the venue is currently situated. The two towers standing above, which would be either offices or apartments, would have an entrance on the opposite (west) side of the building. Demolition of the venue and construction of the new buildings will begin sometime between two and a half and four years from now, according to Sims.
El Corazón, once named the Off Ramp, sits on the edge of the freeway near downtown and South Lake Union and was a hub of the early grunge scene. Nirvana, Mudhoney, and Alice in Chains all played the small nightclub early in their careers. Pearl Jam's first show was at the nightclub in 1990. If Sims succeeds in rebuilding El Corazón and its adjoining venue, the Funhouse (formerly a punk club near the Seattle Center), he could be doing the seemingly impossible—giving room for cultural spaces as Seattle's skyline of towers expands.
But that dream is still far from a reality. The current El Corazón development plans are as vague as the watercolor stylings make them look—they are not legally binding and are likely to change. The project's description on the city's website says: "El Corazón & The Funhouse will take over their new home in the building once construction is complete." But that description can still change as Sims continues through the permitting process, according to a spokesperson for the Department of Neighborhoods.
So while the community could shout loudly that they want the venue in the new building, Sims isn't required to follow through on the plans, even if everyone wants him to. Sims said he has not sold the property, instead working in partnership with a developer to ensure that the venue gets rebuilt.
"I've co-owned this property since 2015, and I intentionally didn't sell because I want to be part of this next chapter on the site, which includes a larger, more modern space for El Corazón and the Funhouse," Sims said in an e-mail.
There might be some reason to be skeptical of Sims's promises. When news broke in February that Sims had applied for a demolition permit, Sims told me in an e-mail, "There are no plans to demolish El Corazón and put a new tower in its place."
Sims said then that the demolition permit was only for "substantial improvements." Yet three months later, the city published his plans to do exactly what he said he wouldn't be doing: demolishing the venue and putting a tower in its place. Sims said he never lied—he claims the plan to demolish the venue was only broached after he had received the permit and a development group approached him.
Sims said he only agreed to the plan after he was assured that the music venue would be rebuilt at the base of the two towers. He said the club could be soundproofed from the floors above by using various structural strategies.
Sims said it's his "mission" to rebuild El Corazón. If he accomplishes this mission, we might be seeing a brand-new El Corazón in 2024, while the Showbox might be reduced to rubble.