The Showbox building is now a landmark. But will it remain a music venue?

While the designation by the city's Landmarks Preservation Board protects the building, it has no control over how the property is used. 

The Showbox theater near Pike Place Market in Seattle, July 25, 2018. (Photo by Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

Seattle’s Landmarks Preservation Board delivered a victory to “Save the Showbox” supporters Wednesday night, as it voted unanimously to designate the building that houses the downtown music venue a historic landmark.

The landmark nomination, submitted last August by Historic Seattle, Friends of Historic Belltown and Vanishing Seattle, focused on the property’s architectural style and its cultural significance — two of the six possible landmark-designation criteria.

“We are ecstatic that our city, through today’s designation by the Landmarks Preservation Board, has formally recognized what so many people have known and said all along: The Showbox is a landmark and this place matters,” Eugenia Woo, director of preservation services at Historic Seattle, said in a statement.

Landmark status only protects a building’s physical elements and does not guarantee that the Showbox, located on First Avenue between Union and Pike streets, would continue as a music venue.

“While we celebrate this exciting victory, we know that our work is far from over,” Woo said, adding that the organization, which has previously expressed interest in buying the property, will continue its fundraising campaign.

The next step is for the board, the city and the owner to negotiate a controls and incentives agreement, according to Woo. “Controls” pertain to the features that are meant to be preserved and that the owner must get approval from the board before altering.

“But if negotiations fail then the process takes another path,” Woo said in an email, also noting that the board specifically designated the building’s entire exterior and large portions of the interior, including the First Avenue entrance and the entire second floor. “It's unclear what's ahead. It depends on the owner.”

Wednesday’s vote is the latest episode in a yearlong saga that began with news that the Showbox, which has played host to major musical acts of all genres for decades, would likely be sold and redeveloped.

The protections that come with landmark status are far weaker than the ones sought in a Seattle City Council-backed effort that was struck down last month by King County Superior Court Judge Patrick Oishi. That effort sought to temporarily expand the Pike Place Market Historical District to include the Showbox, but was ultimately ruled an illegal zoning change. The city council passed an ordinance granting a temporary expansion of the district after building owner Roger Forbes announced he was possibly selling the Showbox, which opened in 1939, and an ownership group from British Columbia expressed interest in building a 44-story residential tower on the site. That group has since backed out.

Forbes is pursuing damages.

Councilmember Lisa Herbold, who spearheaded the legislation to extend the Pike Place Market Historical District, applauded the board’s decision in a statement Thursday.

“Most Seattleites recognize the Showbox as a significant cultural resource and a historic performance venue that launched the careers of local, national, and international musicians,” Herbold said.  “We all recognize its place in Seattle lore and deserves the protections afforded by the Landmarks Board decision.”

The building’s ownership noted that the building, first opened in 1917, has spent periods of time vacant and has previously been used as a furniture store and a bingo hall.

In a statement, Aaron Pickus, spokesman for Showbox ownership, said: “1426 First Avenue has enjoyed a wide spectrum of uses and a broad application of design changes throughout its existence. We respect the work of the Landmark Preservation Board to designate the property as a landmark, but disagree with both the reasoning and the decision itself. We will further evaluate their designation as we consider next steps.”

Historic Seattle says the building has served as a music venue for 58 of the 102 years it has operated.

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