The Showbox
The Showbox Kelly O

Originally published 07/25/18 6:35 pm.

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Seattle is losing its shit right now after news broke this morning that a developer is planning on bulldozing the nearly 80-year-old Showbox venue and putting a 44-story, $100-million apartment building in its place. How could the city let this happen to a venue that has hosted everyone from Pearl Jam to Duke Ellington?

Well to start, the city hasn't let anything happen. Wednesday's announcement was only that the developer sent a preliminary notification to the city, no building permits have been issued or decisions made.

And while the Showbox isn't currently a protected building, it fits many of the requirements for preservation and the city will almost certainly review the building's landmark status before a single light bulb is removed from its marquee.

In fact, the property's developer, Vancouver's Onni Group, is likely to apply for the landmark status themselves as a way to initiate the inevitable landmark review process earlier, according to Erin Doherty, the landmarks coordinator for the Seattle Department of Neighborhoods.

"We don’t have the nomination from them yet but I think we are probably going to get one, it’s just a matter of when," Doherty said.

And even if the developer doesn't file a nomination for landmark designation, the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections (SDCI) would likely refer the project to the Landmark Preservation Board, according to Doherty.

"It’s SDCI’s responsibility to make that referral but it sounds like this is one that would trigger that and this is one that would come to review, but as I said some property developers are proactive and do it earlier rather than waiting for a referral," Doherty said.

This doesn't mean the Showbox will necessarily be saved. Acquiring landmark status takes many months and at least four different public votes. That means there will be plenty of time for people who love the Showbox to try to petition the city to save the theater.

Assuming the venue is either nominated or referred to the Landmarks Preservation Board, the first opportunity for public comment will be when the board reviews that nomination at a public meeting. The public can offer their opinion on the project while the board members review these six criteria for landmark status:

a) It is the location of, or is associated in a significant way with, a historic event with a significant effect upon the community, City, state, or nation; or

b) It is associated in a significant way with the life of a person important in the history of the City, state, or nation; or

c) It is associated in a significant way with a significant aspect of the cultural, political, or economic heritage of the community, City, state or nation; or

d) It embodies the distinctive visible characteristics of an architectural style, or period, or a method of construction; or

e) It is an outstanding work of a designer or builder; or

f) Because of its prominence of spatial location, contrasts of siting, age, or scale, it is an easily identifiable visual feature of its neighborhood or the city and contributes to the distinctive quality or identity of such neighborhood or the City.

The preservation board will then vote on the nomination. If they approve the nomination they will vote a second time, at a second meeting after a second round of public comment, to give it a landmark designation.

Are we done with the bureaucracy yet? Hardly. (Thanks, Seattle Process.) There are two more votes to be had. Once a property gets landmark designation the city will then negotiate an agreement with the property owner that specifically outlines how the building is going to be preserved. Once negotiated, that agreement is then voted on by the board at another public meeting (with public comment allowed!). After that vote, a city ordinance is created which must be voted on by the City Council. If the City Council approves it, the landmark designation is now enshrined in city law as a protected building. There are over 450 such preserved structures, according to the city's website.

How long will all of these votes and public meetings take? That's hard to say, according to Doherty. She said the board's staff reviews nomination applications within two weeks, but then it could take months before the actual board votes on the nomination.

Don't worry, the Onni Group will not be able to bulldoze the Showbox while the landmark status is still under review.

"Some of these processes can work in parallel, but SDCI would not be issuing a permit until the determination is made," Doherty said.

So if you love the Showbox and you don't want to see it bulldozed you have ample time to make your voice heard.

UPDATE (7/27/2018 11:12 am):

When the city paid for a survey of the landmark significance of downtown properties in 2007 the city's surveyor identified the Showbox as having been "so altered that they would not qualify as Seattle landmarks."

Does that mean it can't be a Seattle landmark? No, 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 authority to grant the building landmark status. Although the surveyor's rating for the building means the city's building department might not immediately refer the building to be reviewed by the Landmarks Preservation Board before granting a demolition permit. But that might not be a problem, since it appears the Onni Group is already planning on filing for landmark status as a way of getting the process out of the way.

What might be a bigger problem is that giving a building landmark status does not determine how the structure is used, only how the building is physically modified. Only the Pike Place Market Historic District (which the Showbox sits a couple hundred feet outside of) has the authority to dictate how a historic building is used.

So even if the Showbox wins landmark status, and even getting that appears to be a difficult fight to win, it might not keep the building as a working theater.