The Latest Battle Over the Showbox

Attorneys for the city of Seattle and the owners of the music venue will face off in court on June 21

By Erica C. Barnett June 20, 2019

Seattle, USA - Dec 31, 2018: The Iconic Showbox music venue on 1st avenue at twilight.

This Friday, June 21, attorneys for the city of Seattle and the owners of the Showbox building will face off in King County Superior Court Judge Patrick Oishi’s courtroom in the latest battle over the fate of the downtown music venue.

Last month, the Seattle City Council extended a temporary expansion of the Pike Place Market historical district to include the Showbox (and only the Showbox) until December; inclusion in the historical district effectively prevents the owners of the building, a group led by Seattle strip-club magnate Roger Forbes, from selling or developing the property. The legislation came in response to Forbes’ plans to sell the land to a Canadian developer who planned to build a 44-story apartment building on the property.

Forbes sued the city last year, charging that the legislation amounted to an illegal taking of private property, an illegal spot rezone of a single property, and a violation of both his due process rights and a state policy called the Fairness Doctrine. Some of those claims have been dismissed; others have been reserved for a separate trial. What’s at stake this week are two counterclaims by Forbes and the city. Forbes wants Judge Oishi to void the historic district expansion. The city wants him to dismiss Forbes’ remaining claims against it.

Whatever Judge Oishi decides, a number of events over the past few weeks ensure that the battle over the fate of the Showbox will continue to rage outside the courtroom. In addition to the extension of the Pike Place Market expansion, the last few weeks saw the following developments:

  • The city’s Landmarks Preservation Board unanimously voted to nominate the Showbox building for landmark status, virtually ensuring that the building will become a city landmark. (This is a separate but parallel process from the expansion of the historical district.) Historic Seattle, a nonprofit that works to preserve historical buildings in Seattle, filed the landmark application, along with Vanishing Seattle and Friends of Historic Belltown.
  • Landmark status will not necessarily protect the building from being renovated or torn down, although it would make either outcome much less likely. The main issue with landmarking the Showbox building in an effort to “save” the club is that it’s impossible to landmark the use of a building and illegal to force a building owner to rent to a particular tenant.
  • Speaking of which, earlier this month, Forbes informed the company that runs the Showbox, the international concert promotions company Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG), that he was terminating their lease when it expires in January 2024. At that point (and if Forbes doesn’t sell or redevelop the building in the meantime), Forbes could also withhold AEG’s permission to use the name“The Showbox,” because Forbes, not AEG, owns the trademark to the Showbox brand. The Showbox name is also associated with both the Showbox SoDo and “Showbox Presents,” which promotes shows at other venues.
  • Also last month, Historic Seattle expressed their interest in buying the building from the current owners, asking them to put their lawsuit on hold for a year while the group cobbled together funding. In exchange, Historic Seattle offered to call off its efforts to landmark the Showbox. It appears that those conversations, too, are deadlocked.
  • Forbes has said he’s open to a serious offer, but he has also made it clear what kind of offer he considers “serious”—something right around $40 million, the amount his ownership group was set to earn from the sale to Onni, the Vancouver developer that had planned to buy the building, and the amount for which he originally sued the city.
  • Finally, Pike Place Market advocates saw an opening in last month’s Showbox discussions to press for a broader expansion of the market historical district to include not just the Showbox, but also buildings all along the east side of First Avenue from Stewart to Union streets, in line with what council member Kshama Sawant originally proposed in her initial, more expansive “Save the Showbox” legislation.

Andres Mantilla, the director of the Seattle Department of Neighborhoods, says the city is only studying additional properties in the context of the Showbox proposal—“What’s currently on the table is the study of the Showbox,” he says. Friends of the Market, an advocacy and preservation group, has advocated for expanding the market across First Avenue and preventing the development of tall buildings there. “We need a thorough study” of all the properties along First Avenue for potential inclusion in the historic district, not just the Showbox, Friends of the Market president Kate Krafft says.

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