Eugenia Woo was about halfway through her speech on the stage of the Showbox last Thursday when she looked up from the podium and motioned her hands to the nightclub’s “historic columns and curvilinear walls.”
“We have drawings that show what this interior looked like [in 1939] and it’s essentially what it is now," Woo said. “During that time the Streamline Moderne and Art Deco were really popular styles, so what you see now is very much a 1939 building in a way."
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Woo, the director of preservation for Historic Seattle, wants to make sure that those walls continue to stay essentially the same as future generations enjoy performances at the 79-year-old nightclub. A developer filed plans with the city in July to bulldoze the venue and replace it with 44 stories of luxury apartments. Historic Seattle is fighting that development—they’re the lead applicant on an attempt to get the city’s Landmark Preservation Board to give the venue landmark status—and Thursday’s meeting at the Showbox served as an update on the preservation process.
Woo didn’t have much conclusive news for the crowd.
The landmark application is moving through the city with an initial hearing expected this spring, but even if it's successful a landmark status “alone will not save the building,” according to Woo. Landmark designations in Seattle can preserve pieces of buildings but they don’t protect the use of a building, so landmark status won’t force the Showbox to remain a music venue.
Meanwhile, the city law that temporarily blocked the venue’s destruction is quickly slipping away. The City Council voted in August to extend the Pike Place Market Historical District to include the venue, effectively blocking the venue’s demolition but only on a temporary basis. The extension expires after 10 months, meaning the venue is back on the chopping block this June. Preservationists want to make the Showbox permanently a part of that district because it gives a city board the ability to actually regulate what happens inside the building. But before the City Council can make the extension permanent, the city needs to complete a sizeable study on the extension and the city has yet to even begin that work.
And both of these processes are likely to run up against an even bigger hurdle: Roger Forbes, the owner of the Showbox. The city might be able to stop Forbes from building a 44-story apartment building on top the Showbox, but they can’t force him into continuing to operate the building as a venue. Forbes appears to have no interest in keeping the building a working venue, so the most important preservation tool may end up being buying the venue from him. Does anyone know of any extremely wealthy people looking to spend $30 million or so on an old nightclub (paging Paul Allen’s estate)? Because a wealthy philanthropist may be the ultimate savior for the venue.
Woo’s speech on Thursday wasn’t all bad news. Forbes tried to immediately reverse the city's extension of the market with a lawsuit that sought over $40 million in damages. His lawsuit appeared to be on the verge of quickly ending the entire preservation attempt. But a judge ruled in October that Forbes would not be able to fast track his lawsuit, pushing the trial date back to Aug. 28 of this year.
But even with the lawsuit threat lessened, saving the Showbox still appears to be an uphill battle.
Studying the Market Extension
Lisa Herbold knows the ins and outs of Seattle’s city government. Before she was elected to the City Council in 2015 she worked as a legislative aide for nearly 20 years for former Councilmember Nick Licata. But even after decades of seeing how slowly the gears of government can turn, she still thinks it's possible for the city to permanently extend the Pike Place Market Historical District before the protections for the Showbox expire.
“I think everybody understands that if there’s going to be a recommendation to permanently expand the designation that needs to be in the council’s hands in July at the latest,” Herbold said.
Herbold was one of the council members who rallied around the venue this summer to pass the extension of the market. That law moved the market’s historical district a few hundred feet across 1st Avenue and brought with it some of the city’s strictest preservation rules, allowing a public board to regulate not only how a building looks but what happens inside of it. This move by the council has temporarily blocked the venue’s destruction but these protections were passed only on a 10-month basis, with the idea that the city would study the situation and come up with a permanent plan before the protections expire in June of this year. So what has the city done in the roughly five months since those protections were passed?
It turns out they haven’t done much, at least not yet.
With less than six months to go before the temporary extension expires, the city still needs to study the effects of the protections on the surrounding area, perform stakeholder outreach, and conduct an environmental review of the expansion. The bulk of that work has fallen on the city’s Department of Neighborhoods, who are in the process of hiring a private consultant to do the “study and handle the outreach work,” according to Lois Maag, a spokesperson for the department. Maag said the department needed to wait until budget funding was allocated in January before they could start that work. She said they hope to have a consultant hired by next week.
That means the city’s consultant will have less than six months to conduct what Maag described as “a big body of work” and then submit that report back to the council who would then need to have legislation drafted and public hearings before they could vote on making the protections permanent. This time table should make any supporter of the Showbox nervous, given how long it takes to conduct these kinds of municipal projects.
Kshama Sawant, another council member who spearheaded the protection effort with activism that included concerts on City Hall’s steps, said she has been monitoring the department to make sure that the review work goes according to plan.
“The clock is ticking so we absolutely need to make sure that the timeline does not pass us by,” Sawant said. “It is coming up on us very quickly but at the same time it is enough time to get it done.”
Sawant said that it’s important for the city residents to keep lobbying the council to make the protections permanent.
“It was a historic victory in the summer of last year, but we are going to need that kind of organization and momentum, ‘street heat’ if you will, to make sure this doesn’t slip off the radar of the City Council,” Sawant said. “They should continue organizing and we should have one or two mass actions in the near future to make sure the council knows people still care.”
Herbold said she was reassured by Andrés Mantilla, the director of the Department of Neighborhoods, that the city could meet its timeline and have a plan back to the council by this summer. Herbold didn’t have the same optimism for finding a wealthy individual or group of people who could agree to buy the building and maintain the historic venue.
“We would need more time to do that, I believe,” Herbold said. “That would be the ideal option, but I’m concerned that is not something that can be accomplished between now and July.”
A wealthy benefactor might be the ultimate savior for the venue, but what happens in the next six months could decide the fate of the venue. We’ll see if the council can keep the pressure on to preserve the Showbox’s art deco columns and keep music on its stage.