#NekoCase, #Ballard, and the #Showbox
Prior to this last week, I thought Neko Case was an actress whose movies I couldn’t name. Turns out she is a musician, and according to what I’ve read online, she lived in Seattle for a hot minute before leaving, less than enthused about the city. It has also come to my attention that she was a founding member of Maow, a pretty dope band from Canada that played one of the last shows at the Velvet Elvis, along with Severna Park and the Groovie Ghoulies. Recently, we saw urbanist Twitter go all aflutter following this tweet:
From what I understand, Ms. Case moved from Seattle to Chicago around 2000, lamenting at the time that the City was not hospitable to artists. How many times has she been back since? I don’t know. How many times has she been to Ballard since? Again - no clue. But to me, her Tweet showed that, in her view, the Ballard she knew decades ago has changed, and is no longer that same Ballard.
I don’t pretend to know the subtext of her sentiment. Urbanist Twitter, however, appeared to link the Tweet - this expression of emotion at seeing dramatic change (and make no mistake, the change from 2000-2019 has been relatively dramatic in Ballard) to opposition to growth and change. Maybe it is? But also: maybe it isn’t. (One caveat - power imbalances and all, I’m not convinced that any person with a significant amount of followers disagreeing on the Twitter dot com should engage in a way to incite excessive, angry tweets at someone with far fewer in instances like this, which happened from Ms. Case).
Long ago, I wrote #NIMBY, wherein I shared stories of engagement with people who had raised concerns about zoning changes, homelessness, and more. What I believe is a key takeaway: zoning, land use, and other changes to neighborhoods are not as clearly defined by “sides” as too many have asserted. Rather, in my experience, there are many people who love their neighborhoods, and want to preserve aspects of what they love, and are looking for how to do that while also accommodating new residents.
In my neighborhood, I think of the Eastlake Zoo, 14 Carrot Cafe, Terry Pettus Park, Pete’s, the P-Patch, and more, that have contributed greatly to the history of Eastlake being a quirky, and great, place to live. Yes, some of the new places are pretty great - East Howe Steps and the connecting stairs from Eastlake to Fairview, Pecado Bueno and the cheap margaritas, and Otter Bar & Burger. But if you come for the Zoo, you will find a wall of opposition, and you will find me in that wall.
Cities change, and neighborhoods change. But that doesn’t give us license to determine people’s attachments to certain bars and restaurants, or parks, or quirkiness, are unwarranted and worthy of ire. Rather, it can and should afford us an opportunity to identify more robust ways to ensure we are providing adequate access to homes for all income levels, incubate artistic expression, and preserve and ensure that small businesses in commercial corridors can thrive. One easy way to do that is through broader changes to zoning for more housing diversity, with greater restrictions in commercial corridors. Unfortunately, too often we as a city and society decide to concentrate housing in those corridors, on arterial roadways, which can be bad for public health, for sustaining small businesses, for walkable “downtowns” in neighborhoods. And we do it to protect detached single-family houses from having duplexes, triplexes, or quads next door.
Of course, Neko Case isn’t the first to opine on a changing Seattle. In August, 2018, Death Cab for Cutie frontman Ben Gibbard joined the “Save the Showbox” fray, jumping into another cultural preservation conversation that gripped the city, and is back before the City Council again.
The Showbox fiasco - and it is a fiasco - presents a different approach to preservation of cultural institutions. For those who don’t know, I managed to find myself in the thick of this issue while working for Seattle City Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda. Enough so that I was deposed in the subsequent lawsuit.
There has been a lot of reporting regarding the issue lately, notably by Erica C. Barnett and David Kroman. Notably, as reported at the C is for Crank, the property owner has informed the operator of the Showbox - anti-Union, anti-Choice corporation AEG - that he does not intend to renew their lease. Further, regardless of what happens with any “historic” determination for the structure (which, based on the criteria, the Historic Preservation Board shouldn’t make such a recommendation), any final action that would permanently incorporate the structure into the Pike Place Market Historic District, with the controls on use associated, could (should) create a significant legal issue, and test the limits of the “state” being able to force a property owner in a commercial zone to operate a specific commercial enterprise without compensation, especially given the estimated $40 million market-rate value of the property under two prior zoning changes done by the City in order to spur development (the first of which led to the Showbox opening Showbox SODO in anticipation of Showbox at the Market being torn down).
Ultimately, what much of the reporting and the lawsuit and the deposition miss is what was happening in the days following Councilmember Kshama Sawant’s notification of her intent to walk-on the legislation to the Council’s Introduction & Referral Calendar. What was going on: an effort to find a reasonable middle-ground that included preserving the Showbox while allowing the tower to be built.
Folks may recall that there was a lot of talk about “vesting” and a pre-submittal conference involving Onni and the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections. The original conference was rescheduled on at least two occasions, and was done as part of a broader deal to delay a vote on the legislation until mid-September. Following the EHT discussion, Councilmember Mosqueda noted that Amazon’s representatives broke their word, leading to distrust between her and Amazon. The basis being Amazon agreeing to $275 per FTE for the tax, and then funding the opposition campaign two days later. Suffice it to say, what happened with the original Showbox vote was effectively the same thing: certain Councilmembers agreed to support a delay on a final vote in exchange for the developer agreeing to delay the conference. And then turning their backs on that agreement.
The purpose for the delay: an opportunity to determine whether a new structure could be built around or inclusive of the existing structure. If not, what could feasibly be done in order to preserve the interior elements of the Showbox - the floor, the chandeliers, the stage, the bars - and incorporate them into a new structure that was not prone to collapse during an earthquake, with agreement from the developer to have a covenant protecting the use of the ground floor as a music and arts venue. (Additional discussions were happening regarding the theater district designation, and potentially allowing for-profit agencies to be included, which would create additional ways to incentivize preservation of arts and cultural spaces in the Downtown/Belltown area).
This concept isn’t exactly new, and Onni, the developer in question, has done similar things in Vancouver, B.C. Recently, we have even seen a similar proposal as part of a redevelopment plan for the El Corazon/Funhouse site. Unfortunately, to my knowledge, attempts to come to the deal to make that a reality at the Showbox site have stopped, and for good reason: some members made an agreement to facilitate those negotiations, and then reneged on that agreement. And it isn’t just that the vote passed, but that it passed unanimously, inclusive of members who were trying to negotiate a reasonable compromise.
Cities change. The Velvet Elvis has now become part of Trinity. RKCNDY - which was a dope all-ages club - is now a hotel. The Pioneer Square Theater, whose owners challenged the overly-restrictive Teen Dance Ordinance, putting on all-ages punk shows, has become an office building. At the same time, new venues are coming online - the Clock-Out Lounge, with some of the best sound in Seattle, immediately comes to mind.
Throughout Seattle, the change most likely to eliminate cultural institutions is coming as a direct result of anti-growth activists fighting housing diversity outside of commercial cores. This push for new homes to be built in such a small amount of land also risks elimination of places like the Showbox, and rushing through legislation and breaking promises makes finding that common ground - building housing, contributing to the affordable housing fund, and preserving arts and cultural institutions - more difficult.
People have every right to lament change. We naturally cling to sentiment as humans. But that change affords us opportunity to prove that it can be good. To preserve what’s great, and incorporate “livability” into our built environment. That means different things to different people, but generally, if we can agree to start with a simple rule, I believe we can find more common ground than we think. That rule: don’t assume someone’s motives, especially when there is no frame of reference to do so. We can build a better city when we do the same.