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July 19, 2019

The Showbox gains landmark status

  • After a 7-0 vote by the landmarks board, building ownership says it will consider its next steps.
  • Photo provided by Washington Trust for Historic Preservation [enlarge]
    The new designation is for the exterior, lobby and second-floor interior.

    Seattle's Landmarks Preservation Board on Wednesday evening voted to designate as a city landmark the downtown building that houses the popular music venue, the Showbox.

    The vote was 7-0 to designate the exterior of the 1426 First Ave. building and the second-floor interior, including the lobby that ascends to the second floor.

    The board used this criteria to designate: The Showbox is associated in a significant way with a significant aspect of the cultural, political, or economic heritage of the community, city, state or nation; and it embodies the distinctive visible characteristics of an architectural style, or period or a method of construction.

    The Showbox has hosted an array of musicians in its nearly 80 years as an entertainment venue, including Duke Ellington, Muddy Waters, the Ramones, Coldplay, Lady Gaga, Gypsy Rose Lee, Pearl Jam and Macklemore.

    In a statement issued following the board's vote, Historic Seattle's director of preservation services Eugenia Woo said, “We are ecstatic that our city, through today's designation by the Landmarks Preservation Board, has formally recognized what so many people have known and said all along: The Showbox is a landmark and this place matters.”

    Seattle landmarks may be demolished only if the owner can demonstrate there is no reasonable economic use. They cannot be significantly altered without a permit from the landmarks board.

    Woo said landmarking does not protect the property's use so Historic Seattle is continuing due diligence to buy it through a fundraising campaign.

    The campaign to save the Showbox, spearheaded by Historic Seattle, Friends of Historic Belltown and Vanishing Seattle, began after the DJC reported in 2018 that Vancouver, B.C.-based Onni Group filed plans to build a 44-story tower with 442 residential units on the property. Nationally known musicians and performers expressed their support of preserving the Showbox.

    The Seattle City Council last August passed an ordinance to include the building in a temporary expansion of Pike Place Market Historical District and then recently extended the time it would be in place. However, a judge ruled in favor of the property owners in June.

    The Seattle Times reported on Wednesday that Onni Group terminated an agreement to acquire the property following the city's move to protect the venue.

    The building that houses the Showbox was constructed in 1917 as a market, according to Northwest Vernacular, which prepared the landmark nomination application. A 1939 remodel transformed it into a 1,000-person performance venue.

    Aaron Pickus, a spokesperson for the 1426 First Ave. ownership, issued a statement after the landmarks vote. It says the ownership respects the work of the board to designate the property as a landmark, “but disagree(s) with both the reasoning and the decision itself” and will consider next steps.

    According to the statement, following the judge's ruling in June that the ordinance was illegal, the property owners have continued litigation regarding the council's actions so they “may plan for potential future uses and value of the property.” It says recent filings by the owners concern the council's extension of the ordinance, “as well as the work ahead to seek damages resulting from the cancellation of a sale of the property in 2018 due to the adoption of the illegal ordinance and attorneys' fees.”

    Building owner Roger Forbes has sued the city, and is seeking $40 million in damages.

    The ownership statement notes the building has had nine use changes and four periods of vacancy since it was built. It says in 2006 the city determined it did not meet requirements for landmark status. “This determination was the result of a professional historical survey of the property led by a former Pike Place Historical District Coordinator. The City wrote a detailed letter to the owner — signed by the City's Chief Historic Preservation Officer — that redevelopment of the site would not need to go through the Landmark process.” The statement says the council rezoned the property two times in recent years: In 2006, allowing for an approximately 40-story residential tower; and in 2017, allowing for an approximately 44-story residential tower. Redevelopment could generate $5 million or more for affordable housing, it says.

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