It was an unusual group that showed up to #SaveTheShowbox.
Musicians, preservationists, fans and stans thronged to the City Council Chambers like it was a sold-out show, demanding that the council expand the Pike Place Market Historical District to include the Showbox Theater, a venue at risk of being demolished and replaced by a 44-story apartment complex.
At the end of the day, they were successful. The Showbox was added to the historical district for a period of 10 months while the City Council, its owners and the developer wrestle over whether or not some piece of the Showbox will remain in form or function.
The process was unusual, said Jeffrey Ochsner, a professor in the University of Washington Department of Architecture. The boundaries of the Pike Place Market Historical District have been the same for 46 years.
“This has never been tried before,” Ochsner said.
The addition of the Showbox to the historical district is different than the landmark process, which applies protections to features of a single building. Unlike most districts, the Pike Place Market Historical District not only protects the physical edifice, but also the use.
That means that any change in use of a building has to go before a commission. That was done to keep out chain stores, Ochsner said.
“When [Councilmember Kshama] Sawant proposed ‘let’s add this site to the Pike Place Market,’ she did that because that way the site could be regulated, not just in terms of the physical building of the Showbox, which the landmark would do, but they can regulate the use,” Ochsner said.
At the same time, the organization Historic Seattle, which is dedicated to preserving the historical architecture of the city, put in a landmark designation for the building, meaning that even if at the end of 10 months it is no longer gerrymandered into the Pike Place Market Historical District, it could receive some kind of protection.
Historic Seattle managed to get that nomination completed within 10 days — a feat, given that it requires an extensive exploration of the reasons that a particular property deserves a landmark designation.
The point was to preserve what many refer to as “the soul of Seattle,” an ephemeral concept embodying the city’s look and feel. Seattle isn’t a place people flock to because they can buy a luxury apartment, said Eugenia Woo, director of preservation services at Historic Seattle. They come for places like the Showbox — things that encapsulate the vibe and history of a place.
“If you wipe out any remnants of the history that was there and continues to tell the story of why a place was significant, you have no compass point anymore,” Woo said.
It’s hard to balance Seattle’s growth with the desire to preserve its history. The city has managed to do so by creating districts like the one that manages Pioneer Square and Pike Place Market, but most buildings that receive protections are individually nominated through the landmarks process.
That means that the person or organization asking for a landmark designation does so by identifying the pieces of the building that should be preserved. Buildings more than 50 years old come up for landmark status almost automatically, so oftentimes developers or owners will submit a building for landmark status on their own in order to control what pieces of the property get landmarked.
That’s because landmarking a property can come with significant restrictions — just ask Dr. Flip Herndon, associate superintendent of Seattle Public Schools, who notes that roughly one-third of schools in the district are landmarked, which makes it more expensive and difficult to do renovations and repairs. In the past 10 years, the school district has expanded by nearly 8,000 students, Herndon said. That’s more students than populate the majority of school districts in the state.
One-third of schools in the district require extra processes and have strange details that cannot be changed.
In an era of whiteboards and dry erase markers, one school has blackboards for which the district no longer orders chalk, Herndon said.
Other schools have had the width of hallways preserved, which makes it hard to expand existing facilities to include new students. Accommodations for students with disabilities are also difficult.
In one school, the roof is landmarked, requiring terra cotta tiles.
“They’re more expensive, more prone to breaking,” Herndon said. “All of these things add up to hundreds of thousands of dollars over time.”
The synthetic version of the tiles looks the same but lasts longer, making them a better investment, Herndon said.
“I understand people having nostalgia and people doing what they need to do, but our schools serve a function. These aren’t museums,” Herndon said.
Herndon estimates that the cost of renovating a landmarked school goes up at least 4 percent. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but it can mean $4 million in the case of at least one project in the district.
Quirky controversies around historic preservation are hardly unique to Seattle.
California has other examples. In one case, a group in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles put in a bid to landmark an inoperable Texaco gas station. The owner of the property had taken out permits to turn the land into an apartment complex.
Another landmarks board in Santa Monica, California, considered landmarking a freestanding Arby’s sign. The company that owned the Arby’s wanted to turn it into a Wendy’s. Ultimately, they had to spend thousands of dollars to send the sign to a museum in Youngstown, Ohio.
All of that is not to say that landmarking districts is a bad thing. The people of Seattle came together in the 1970s to protect Pike Place Market using the initiative process, knowing that the land by the water was vulnerable to development.
Why the Showbox wasn’t included back in the day is a question for history.
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC
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