Seattle's Fight to Save The Showbox, Its Most Important Venue
Artists like Pearl Jam and Duke Ellington once graced its stage. Now activists are trying to save it from demolition.
Photo of Eddie Vedder by Jim Bennett/Getty Images
On April 19, 1969, Alice Nugent stepped up to a podium on the 11th floor of the Seattle Municipal Building. She was speaking at a public hearing on behalf of Friends of the Market, an advocacy group fighting a proposal put forth by the Central Association of Seattle to redevelop the city’s historic Pike Place Market into a high-rise office building, a hotel, and a seven-story parking garage.
“It’s just too bad when you have an urban renewal situation [where] good buildings are torn down,” Nugent, a concerned citizen, told a crowd of City Council members, businessmen, and Seattle residents. “The warm, personal atmosphere at the Market is one that you don’t get at the supermarket. There you are with the farmers—they call you by your first name, they haggle. It’s all something you don’t get anywhere else.”
Tucked away at the bottom of a steep, cobblestoned hill along Elliott Bay, Pike Place is the oldest continuously operating public market in the country. It’s a place where residents can hear more than a dozen languages and encounter hundreds of national and international vendors. Seattle citizens like Nugent fought hard to defend the market’s place in the city, and after a seven-year battle against the Central Association of Seattle, the Friends of the Market put the issue to a public referendum. Their proposal—which called for the creation of a seven-acre historic district that encompassed the Market in its entirety—passed by a 3-to-2 majority.
Nearly 50 years later, a similar fight is taking place across the street.
Photo by Sunita Martini
On July 25, 2018, news broke that Roger Forbes—the building’s owner—had entered into a contract to sell the property to the Vancouver-based developer Onni Group, which had submitted plans to City Hall to demolish The Showbox and transform the property into a 44-story, $100 million apartment complex. The news kicked off a protracted battle between Seattle music lovers and Forbes over the fate of the venue—one which quickly became a flashpoint for larger conversations about gentrification in the city. “It kind of felt like one of those indescribable traumas, like when you’re told someone close to you has died,” said Seattle-based comedian Jay Middleton, who used to be in a band that played its first concert there. “I shared some of my memories of The Showbox on Facebook, and a link to an article about the plans to demolish it. One of my friends commented on my post and said, ‘Why don’t you just start a petition to help save it?’” Jay listened. In July 2018, he started a Change.org petition, noticed some signatures trickling in, and turned off his phone. It was a Wednesday, which meant he would be on stage that night for an open mic at the Tacoma Comedy Club.
“When I left for work, there were 500 signatures,” he told Noisey. “When I got off the stage, there were 10,000. All I did was try to give a platform for people who wanted to keep it. I didn’t do anything political—I just grew up a punk rock metal kid.” Those 10,000 signatures have since blossomed into more than 100,000, as music fans all over the world make their case for why The Showbox should be saved. Pleas on the Change.org petition range from “Stop erasing our legacy,” to “We don’t need more high-rise apartment buildings,” to “I want my children to experience this.” In response to the public outcry—which included an open letter in The Seattle Times signed by more than 170 musicians—the Seattle City Council quickly passed an ordinance. It temporarily expanded the Pike Place Historical District to include The Showbox for ten months, buying local preservationists time to devise a plan to permanently save the building while Onni’s proposed project was put on hold. Shows continue to be held there on a near-daily basis.
Forbes promptly sued the city, demanding that it reverse the ordinance or else award him approximately $40 million in damages—the amount he estimates the property would sell for on the open market, according to the lawsuit. The trial date was pushed from January to late August, but has not been set yet. Since The Showbox isn’t directly connected to the Pike Market Mixed Zone, the suit claimed that that the ordinance was “unlawful” and that it used “gerrymandered mechanisms” to include the venue in the Historical District.
"The City Council, to enhance its political popularity, enacted an unlawful ordinance that was intended to, and did, place all the burden of providing a public music venue to City residents onto the shoulders of a private landowner," reads the lawsuit. “The City’s conduct was not consistent with the procedures for considering a rezone of a property.” Forbes, his lawyers, and Onni Group did not respond to multiple requests for comment from Noisey.
The city disputes this claim and is arguing in court that its temporary expansion of the Pike Place Historical District was lawful. The suit has not been settled, but Forbes’ $40 million valuation was dismissed by a judge in October.
In response to the lawsuit, District 3 council member Kshama Sawant organized an outdoor concert and public hearing for musicians and music fans to express the importance of the venue. Supporters of The Showbox shared stories and listened to live performances from Seattle-based musicians like Sol, a rapper, and rock bands Smokey Brights and Dude York. While Forbes’ lawsuit drags on, three advocacy groups—Friends of Belltown, Historic Seattle and Vanishing Seattle—are petitioning for The Showbox to be granted landmark status, which would protect the building from demolition. Making the building a landmark also increases the likelihood that the City Council will include The Showbox in the Pike Place Historical District, thereby giving the Pike Place Market Historical Commission authority over how the building is used.
According to Historic Seattle, the advocacy groups are employing a three-tiered strategy for saving the venue, which includes landmarking; expanding the Pike Place Market Historical District to include The Showbox; and finding a buyer, investor, or donor who will commit to maintaining it as a music venue. One potential obstacle to this plan is the fact that the property where The Showbox sits has been zoned for high-rise redevelopment (a building of at least 75 feet per Seattle’s Building Codes) for the last two decades.
Boiled down into layman’s terms, “zoning” refers to a set of rules put in place by city planners to control what buildings are in a certain area and how they are used. Different areas can be zoned for different purposes such as commercial zoning, residential zoning, and industrial zoning. Zoning decisions are based on what city planners envision is best for the city, long-term.
In 2006, the Seattle City Council enacted a Downtown Urban Center Neighborhood Plan, which Jason Kelly of the city’s Office of Planning and Community Development described to Noisey in an email as “A community-based process intended to guide expected future job and population growth” in downtown Seattle. Prior to this plan, The Showbox had been zoned for 240-foot commercial buildings. After it, the property The Showbox occupies was upzoned to allow for residential towers as high as 400 feet.
In 2017, the zoning laws downtown changed again, as the City Council voted to allow developers to rezone areas downtown in exchange for building more affordable housing, or for contributing to an affordable housing fund. Among the downtown properties that were up-zoned was the one that The Showbox was on, to allow for buildings as high as 440 feet. In a place with more construction cranes than any other city in the country, this type of redevelopment downtown is nothing new. But as more apartment buildings are built, it’s often the city’s history that suffers. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, Seattle was christened the birthplace of grunge, known for its gritty sound, flannels, and ripped jeans, as well as acts like Nirvana and Soundgarden. Musicians flocked to the city, seeing it as a laid-back destination for folks who wanted to experiment musically, free from the pressures of the music industry.
“Seattle was once an undeveloped area as far as the music business goes,” Pearl Jam guitarist Stone Gossard told Louder Sound in 1992. “There was a healthy punk scene with people playing just for fun and everything could develop at a slow pace. There wasn’t a rush to get signed. Soundgarden and Mudhoney became great bands because they had a chance to develop naturally. They weren’t thinking about major tours.”
Grunge grew, and the city’s music scene flourished. “I wanted to live in Seattle because I loved Seattle [grunge],” said Showbox house manager Shannon Welles, who has worked at the venue for 17 years. “It was the music mecca for me, and I needed to be here. I was obsessed with Pearl Jam for like 20 years. I loved Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, Nirvana. I’d wanted to live here since 1991; it took me 10 years to get here.”
Seattle natives Ryan Devlin and Kim West experienced Seattle’s open-minded music community firsthand.
“It was full-on funk,” said Devlin, who has played The Showbox twice with the band Smokey Brights. “There was all of this interesting music—and the possibility of being an interesting, weird person who made interesting, weird music seemed very real.”
But after Amazon moved into downtown Seattle in 2010, the cost of living increased, and artists began to move out. Today, for many members of Seattle’s creative community, the affordable rents and artistic open-mindedness that once made Seattle’s culture so vibrant feels like a distant memory. “Nobody moves to Seattle for the luxury condos,” said West, Devlin’s band mate. “Bands like Nirvana and Soundgarden—those bands didn’t just happen. They happened because they lived somewhere where they could take risks and be weird and try something that no one’s ever tried before. It’s just becoming harder and harder to envision doing that, to envision taking those leaps.”
Musicians remember The Showbox as a place where an artist could take those risks. In 2001, Memphis-born singer-songwriter Clarence Greenwood, aka Citizen Cope, played his first show there. He opened for Ben Folds and was promptly booed off the stage.
“I got harassed by the audience,” he said with a laugh. “I was by myself with a drum machine. That wasn’t in at that time. It was a weird show.”
After his set, Jonna McCurry—the venue’s longtime backstage manager—was waiting for him with words of encouragement.
“They were rude, and I just said, ‘Fuck them,’” McCurry told Noisey. “‘They don’t know.’ And now those jerks probably come to his shows.” Cope’s manager, Thomas Cussins, told Noisey that Greenwood has since sold out The Showbox eight times.
In 2012, after playing smaller venues around town for a couple years, hip-hop artist Sol played his first headlining show at The Showbox.
“It was a big change,” he said. “But The Showbox embraced me and took on the show. They saw me as a young artist who had a head on his shoulders, [who] was driven and had an intention of selling out The Showbox even if I didn’t know I could do it.” He said that in the-run up to the show, he hatched a plan to use “unorthodox promotions” to lure people to the concert, organizing a meet-and-greet at the box office and hiding tickets across the city for fans to find.
“Not every venue is down for something like that,” he said. “[When I went] on tour, I expected the same level of professionalism. It’s what I grew up with. And then you leave and you realize that not every city is like Seattle, and not every venue is like The Showbox. This is something really special and should be appreciated.” The venue’s importance to the local music community didn’t become apparent to the city government until recently, primarily because of its complicated history. Originally constructed in 1917 by businessman Charles Frye, 1426 First Avenue was once a large public market, with stalls for individual tenants to sell goods. In 1939, Michael Lyons—a longtime show business professional—invested $100,000 for a remodel, transforming it into a dine and dance club. Over the past eight decades, though, the building has housed everything from a furniture showroom, to an arcade, to a bingo hall.
A couple of months after the Seattle City Council implemented the 2006 Downtown Urban Center Neighborhood Plan, it requested that a survey and inventory of potentially historic buildings be conducted in downtown Seattle in order to mitigate the effects of zoning code changes. The Showbox received a “4” on a 1-4 scale for a historical resources survey because it lacked “sufficient physical integrity to convey architectural and/or historic significance,” according to a report from the Seattle Department of Neighborhoods. Because The Showbox fell in Category 4, it could not qualify as a Seattle landmark. The new zoning laws remained intact.
But according to Historic Seattle, no one examined the building’s interior. There were no glimpses of the domed ceiling, engaged columns, or 1930s-era Streamline Modern styling. And certainly no consideration of The Showbox’s considerable cultural significance.
“[The city’s] downtown survey in 2007 looked only at the outside of The Showbox, not at the cultural history which is particularly important for this building,” said Naomi West, Director of Philanthropy at Historic Seattle, one the three advocacy groups nominating the building for landmark status.
In 2008, the city’s Music Advisory Committee—a group of local musicians, venue owners, and label executives—created a 12-year roadmap for stimulating the growth of the city’s music industry, with the goal of establishing Seattle as a “City of Music” by the year 2020. The Seattle Music Commission, a body created by the city government to lead the initiative, has since explored a variety of approaches for supporting the local scene, like securing more affordable housing and ensuring fair wages for musicians. But 2020 is rapidly approaching, and the venue’s fate is far from decided, which raises the question of whether a city that strives to be defined by its musical legacy will recognize the value of one of its most beloved concert halls. “A big part of being ‘The City of Music’ is having well-managed venues [like The Showbox] that are run by professional people that artists rave about,” said Welles, The Showbox’s house manager. “What really matters if this institution is not valued? Is anything valued?”
This spring, Historic Seattle, Vanishing Seattle, and Friends of Historic Belltown will present their landmark nomination to the Landmarks Preservation Board at a public meeting. Their case focuses on two primary areas: how The Showbox impacts Seattle’s culture and its distinctive interior architectural features. “Our city can’t afford to lose The Showbox,” West said.“Its cultural history could fill a book; its interior is intact from the days of Duke Ellington playing there. This place matters.”
Though the news that the city was up-zoning the property to make way for a 44-story apartment didn’t receive much public attention in 2017, the contract between Onni Group and Forbes did. And the public backlash that followed emphatically demonstrated the venue’s importance to the community. “Every single member of the City Council except one was fighting vigorously against the ordinance [to temporarily expand the Pike Place Historical District to include The Showbox] on the morning of August 13, 2018,” said Sawant. “By the afternoon, they were telling the public how much they dreamed of saving The Showbox. We were able to pass the ordinance at such a lightning speed because we built a fighting movement.”
Forty-eight years after the referendum placing Pike Place Market in a historical district was passed, a similar wave of citizen activism is taking shape. The difference is that dozens of high-profile artists weren’t clamoring to save the Market in 1971. And they didn’t have massive social media platforms at their disposal to do so. Enter #SavetheShowbox, a hashtag that musicians and fans started circulating after Forbes’ plans to sell the building were made public in July 2018. Today, it continues to serve as a vehicle for music lovers to share their personal experiences with the venue and explain its value to the community.
“If we can, we need to fight this thing,” said Macklemore, a Seattle native and one of the venue’s most high-profile supporters, in an interview with Noisey. “We need to pull together our resources, use our platforms as musicians, and mobilize. And I think that’s what happening right now.”
Macklemore, who told Noisey that he met his current manager after selling out the venue three nights in a row in 2011, credits The Showbox with lifting his career to new heights. Millions of record sales later, he’s trying to repay the favor.
“I remember the venue seeming huge, massive, beautiful, extravagant,” he said of his first show there. “[Performing there] was surreal. There’s something about that room, that space, the ambiance—there’s a legacy there. And I remember feeling a part of that for the first time.”
If Seattle loses The Showbox, it’s losing that legacy. It’s losing a place where the people of Seattle can come together and bond over the artists they love—and where the city of today can coexist with its past.
“People talk about their favorite burger place and about how the grill is 50 years old, and it takes those 50 years for it to make things taste the way they do,” says Taylor Goldsmith of the California rock band Dawes, which has played The Showbox on multiple occasions. “It’s not that dissimilar with a venue. The experiences they had in that room carry into every single show.”
As The Showbox awaits the landmark preservation hearing in the spring, along with further review by the city council into the effects of making the temporary expansion of the Pike Place Historical District permanent and the outcome of the Forbes lawsuitAQ, Seattle must decide what it considers irreplaceable. And while the city boasts other concert venues, The Showbox is more than wood beams and bricks.
“What The Showbox is about is the inside,” McCurry said. “I mean, they could tear it down and build this beautiful state-of-the-art facility, but as far as I’m concerned, that’s not what we want. What we want is what lives and breathes in that building and what every musician from Duke Ellington to Soundgarden has left on that stage. They all sweat their souls out on that stage.”