Yes, the Showbox is historic. But affordable housing is more important

We can find a solution that preserves the historic venue without pitting arts and culture against our need for more housing.


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

Last month, a King County Superior Court judge issued a forceful and sweeping ruling denying recent efforts by the Seattle City Council to prevent the development of the site of the Showbox into hundreds of new units of housing. For anyone paying attention to the issue, the judge’s ruling should not have been a surprise.

His concerns about the city engaging in illegal zoning maneuvers and violating due process rights were some of the same concerns that led me to cast the sole vote against the council’s most recent action to extend the boundaries of the Pike Place Market Historical District to prevent the venue’s redevelopment.

Our great city is facing a housing crisis. While we are proud to live in such a beautiful place with a thriving economy, it is increasingly unaffordable to live here today. As more people come seeking to call Seattle home, we are not building enough housing to keep up. We need more housing, not less, if we want to truly confront this crisis.

In the midst of this housing emergency, we also are fighting to protect and grow our unique arts community and heritage. But we cannot allow our commitment to support arts and culture to be pitted against our need for more housing. That’s another reason why I did not support the inclusion of the Showbox property in the historical district.

The housing crisis did not arise overnight, and is a challenge all healthy cities have in accommodating a rising population. Seattle’s housing crisis has resulted from generations of economic inequality and restrictive zoning that have made it impossible to build enough affordable housing. As we work together to confront this crisis long-term, we must also hold ourselves accountable in our day-to-day decision-making, or we risk undermining the goal all Seattle residents share of building a more affordable city.

Simply put, we should not one month pursue policies that allow more housing, then enact restrictions on that new housing the next month. The Showbox is an unfortunate example of this unpredictable decision-making. In recent years, the city council has adopted the Mandatory Housing Affordability program, which makes it easier to build more housing and requires developers to provide affordable housing. Most recently, in March, the council implemented MHA citywide. Because of these new housing affordability rules, some observers have estimated the previously proposed redevelopment of the Showbox site would have been required to contribute as much as $5 million for affordable housing. In the midst of a housing crisis, I couldn’t in good conscience vote to take away funding that could provide about 70 families with an affordable home.

Such inconsistent policy actions undermine our ability to build more affordable housing to meet the needs and values of both current and future residents. We need to have a productive conversation about how to achieve dual goals, rather than setting housing affordability and the arts in opposition.

We can support music venues that are safe for artists and audiences at the same time that we incentivize increasing housing density in our downtown neighborhoods. There is every reason to believe that we can create a win-win outcome for those who are earnestly fighting for more housing and those who cherish their connection to the Showbox. I believe that the city council has a real opportunity to create the space for such a solution to emerge, but we need to commit to actions consistent with the goals we adopt.

My council colleagues are dedicated public servants and I am honored to serve alongside them. But as the court’s ruling indicates, the rush to extend the historical district boundaries was not the right way to serve the public interest.

Going forward, it is my hope that the city can now engage in a collaborative process with community members and the property owner to find a solution that preserves our cherished cultural heritage and produces more needed housing. Win-win solutions exist, like a housing development built on top of the Showbox that contributes to affordable housing and preserves the theater. Or we could try to identify a buyer who is willing to purchase the Showbox and donate money for affordable housing. But to get there, we can’t rush into decisions. Let’s talk, and problem solve, instead.

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About the Authors & Contributors

Abel Pacheco

Abel Pacheco is a Seattle city councilmember representing District 4.