There’s a laudable groundswell to make the Showbox a historic landmark, but it’s not going to work. In fact, the city has already deemed the Showbox ineligble for historic landmark status.
In 2007, the city surveyed downtown’s older buildings, and scored them with a number between 1 and 4. Category 1 buildings were layups, and were preserved by the Landmarks Board and City Council that year. Category 2 and 3 had potential, and some were later preserved.
Category 4 buildings, on the other hand, didn’t meet the criteria, and the City declared them ineligible for historic preservation. The Showbox is a Category 4 building. It can’t become a historic landmark.
According to the survey, “[the Showbox] exhibits minimal original or historic building fabric/features. The original 1916 building was extensively altered when it was adapted to serve as a theater c.1940. …The building appears to lacks [sic] sufficient physical integrity to convey architectural and/or historic significance.”
Landmark designations are mostly assigned on an aesthetic or architectural basis, because it’s the only metric that the city can accurately document and score. Cultural value is much trickier.
What’s more, the city can’t require that private property be used for any specific purpose. Landmarks designations can only save a building itself, not the business (or theater) inside it. The city can only require the owner to fit the use of a historic building into its zoning, and keep the building up to historic landmark specs.
However, city preservation official Erin Doherty says that Onni, the development company that owns the Showbox’s plot, has already told the Department of Neighborhoods that it intends to file a landmark nomination for the theater—even though there is no legal requirement that it do so. (No nomination has been filed yet, but Doherty says that Onni staffers have been in touch.) Onni could demolish the Showbox in just a couple months, and bypass the landmarks process entirely.
So why would the developer submit a landmarks application? Onni claims that they want to expedite the process that has already been expedited. Given the Category 4 designation from the landmark survey, the new filing is essentially pointless.
There is one advantage to filing a landmarks designation. The filing would force the Landmarks Board, in highly publicized, emotional meetings, to reconsider the Showbox issue. Since the Board already declared the building ineligible in 2007, they would undoubtedly keep status the same. And that would put the heat on the city, not the developer that wants to tear down Seattle’s favorite theater.