I’ve read a lot of takes on the Showbox recently, and it’s been frustrating to see people that I generally agree with on land use issues advocate for redeveloping the site. It’s a false choice to say that you can either have the Showbox, or you can have a dense, livable city.
For example, Erica Barnett and Josh Feit, whose work I deeply admire (and who took me on as an intern), have gone hard in favor of redevelopment. So has Brent White, my colleague at Seattle Transit Blog, where I write pro-density and pro-upzone journalism every week.
They all make good points: Erica argues that NIMBYs can cite the Showbox precedent to obstruct worthy projects. Josh points out that the Onni project is one of the first examples of the MHA affordable housing program, and maybe even a model project. He’s also pointed out that the city has lots of music venues. Brent points out that today’s luxury housing is tomorrow’s affordable housing.
Those are all worthy arguments, and 99 percent of the time I’d be making them myself. But, respectfully, I think the Showbox is a special case, and the response of my colleagues and fellow YIMBYs to the Showbox issue is reductive.
It’s instructive here to compare the reaction to the Showbox news to that about the Funhouse or Josephine. Those were both well-loved venues, but they didn’t rally the entire Seattle music and arts community to their defense. Plenty of people wrote laments about their ends; someone even made a documentary about the Funhouse.
The Funhouse is a good analogue here: it was razed for mixed use redevelopment. It did not see a large grassroots movement making public comment at City Council meetings. Honestly, it didn’t deserve that sort of response. The Funhouse was special, but not that special. The scenes that both places fostered came to their defense, but the whole city didn’t.
The Showbox is different. It’s extra special. The stay of execution for the Showbox came from a real grassroots movement. I believe that movement is representative of musicians and music fans across the city. As a musician, I’ve felt for years that the Showbox is a special place. My fellow musicians hold it in special reverence.
None of my cohort was here in the grunge days, because a lot of us weren’t even born yet. Most of us don’t like Pearl Jam and are sick and tired of hearing “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Yet we still hold the Showbox in special regard, because it’s a special place. It’s older than most venues in town. More legends have played there than anywhere else.
That’s the whole point: its history is not limited to grunge. I roll my eyes whenever I hear an aging Gen Xer talk about the OK Hotel and Offramp. Duke Ellington didn’t play those rooms. Plus, the room itself sounds better and is more intimate than most theaters in the whole damn country. Actually, that’s even more the point than the history. Any musician coming up in this city now daydreams about a set at the Showbox. It’s a statement, a message that you’re important.
The special quality of the Showbox is anecdotal and emotional. By definition, it can’t be quantified. As the recent city council actions have shown, it’s not easy to legislate—and it shouldn’t be. Erica is right: the Showbox should not be used as a precedent. It’s easy to see some craftsman dweller in Phinney Ridge making the same arguments about their herp derp coffeeshop in the face of a new market rate housing project—partly because it happens all the time already. Preserving the Showbox won’t make that argument any less easy or prevalent.
Neighborhood character is a straw man most of the time, but in this case it’s not. We’d lose something essential if that specific room was destroyed. Seattle is a young city, and it’s true that we don’t have much in the way of history, at least not in the white culture sense. (We’re on occupied Duwamish territory, as the Blue Scholars reminded us at a series of Showbox shows that was the zenith of their music career.) The Showbox is a large part of the history we do have.
A single tower downtown on the site of the Showbox will not solve Seattle’s housing shortage, because the scale of the crisis is so vast. The only solution to our housing problem is ending the selfish monopolization of land by reactionary people living in single family homes. That is the real problem. We need a hell of a lot more duplexes and small apartment buildings and rowhouses, and we need them outside urban villages, which are just about maxed out.
I zealously advocate for upzones and density as part of my job. I’m in favor of more density everywhere. I think that the whole business about views and shadows is dumb. In fact, if it’s going to be hot as hell (and it will be more and more forever), some shade would be nice. Let’s raze some parking lots and single family homes to make that happen. Let’s build a sixty story skyscraper in the middle of Ravenna!
We should upzone every craftsman bungalow in town. Hell, I own one thanks to generational wealth, white privilege, etc. and I’d let some developer raze it yesterday if the price was right. I’d be doing my civic duty: Seattle has more exclusionary, single family zoning than any other big city in the United States.
I just don’t think we have to go to the mat for the developer every time. I think it’s fair to ask for concessions or changes of plan from someone building out a project. The First Hill Neighborhood Association’s work extracting neighborhood improvements from the Convention Center is a great example of that.
So, instead of razing the Showbox, maybe Onni could just use the parking lot in back. Split the lot, like with the Sanctuary. Or build over the top. I don’t really care if it’s more expensive for Onni. That’s their problem.
I want huge-ass buildings everywhere. Just don’t tear down the Showbox. It’s special.
Also published on Medium.