'Save the Showbox' ends badly
By Jean Godden
You sort of knew that it would end badly and it did. The effort to Save the Showbox Theater misfired wildly and is now ending up costing us, the taxpayers, a lot of money, time, effort and missed opportunity.
The sad story began last year when the public first became aware that the Showbox Theater, a First Avenue music venue, would be torn down and replaced by a 40-story residential tower. Once alerted, music fans protested. Some 120,000 signed a petition to save the 80-year-old structure that had hosted musicians from Duke Ellington to Macklemore.
In response, Councilmember Kshama Sawant proposed an improper spot rezone, calculated to block the deal to sell the property to a developer. She further jeopardized the preservation effort by sponsoring rallies, printing posters and distributing talking points, disregarding rules that call for councilmembers to remain unbiased when making land-use decisions.
The council approved Sawant's ordinance, redrawing zoning lines to temporarily place the Showbox property within the Pike Place Market historic district. Although Sawant led the effort, councilmembers like Lisa Herbold, Teresa Mosqueda and Mike O'Brien helped draft the ordinance. Mayor Jenny Durkan signed the initial ordinance but neglected to sign a second ordinance extending the temporary rezone.
Once the city acted last year, the developer backed out of the deal, prompting the owner of the property, Roger Forbes, known as the "strip-joint king," to sue. He was seeking $40 million from the city.
Last June, Judge Patrick Oishi found the city's action illegal, nullifying the Sawant-sponsored measure. The judge delayed any decision on damages.
Now comes the unhappy ending: the city settled the lawsuit with the taxpayers giving landowner Forbes $915,000 for legal fees and other costs. The settlement asks the judge to submit his final ruling overturning the historical-district rezone. Neither party will appeal and the city will have until next March to buy the property for $41.4 million or identify a would-be buyer. The deal is contingent on the Landmarks Preservation Board and the City removing restrictions on the property.
City Attorney Pete Holmes says the settlement is a good deal for the city. Good deal? Having to hand almost a million to the owner of a chain of nude strip clubs? Besides the money paid to Forbes, the city paid another $391,000 to outside defense lawyers and maybe lost $5 million for affordable housing. Holmes says he weighed filing an appeal that risked a judgment of tens of millions against the chance of a third-party organization like Historic Seattle leading an effort to purchase and preserve the building.
Of course, the prospect of someone or some group being able to raise the $41.4 million to buy the venue remains a remote possibility. But, should such a miracle occur, the Showbox Theater still remains an unreinforced masonry structure that has been rated "high risk" and that, during a survey of historic properties, ranked at the very bottom as having "no historic value whatsoever."
Real Change reporter Ashley Archibald may speak for some would-be Showbox saviors. She recently told KUOW's "Week in Review" that she "hasn't been to the Showbox because I can't afford a ticket, but I don't want to see it torn down."
The popular appeal to "Save the Showbox," may have been almost understandable, given its moments of musical glory, but the city's "rescue" was still unwise and ill-considered. Our elected officials blatantly disregarded consequences and rules. We can and should hold them responsible and we shouldn't forget.