The J Is for Judge: More Housing, Less Nostalgia

File:Seattle - Showbox marquee 01.jpg
Photo credit: Joe Mabel

Editor’s note: I’m excited to introduce a regular new column for The C Is for Crank, by my former colleague at PubliCola and The Stranger, Josh Feit, in which Josh issues a verdict on the week’s news. For his debut column, Josh argues that we might not be having a debate over whether to “save the Showbox”—a club in a two-story building in the densest part of downtown Seattle—if Seattle’s zoning laws didn’t make housing illegal almost everywhere in the city. 

After the Daily Journal of Commerce and other local news sites reported that the Onni Group, a Vancouver, BC-based developer, plans to tear down the the Showbox and build a 440-foot, 442-unit apartment tower with ground-level retail, social media blew up, lamenting yet another victim of Seattle’s building boom. Calls to save the Showbox, the storied downtown music venue at 1st and Pike, quickly followed, including the possibility of declaring the building, with its iconic marquee, a historic landmark.  Even former Guns ‘n Roses bassist Duff McKagan joined the outcry, telling KIRO radio: “Music is a big part of the soul of our city, and the Showbox is at the center of that.”

My flip reaction to the news? If Seattle didn’t have strict zoning laws that make it impossible to build freely in other neighborhoods, maybe developers like Onni wouldn’t have to tear down beloved downtown institutions like the Showbox.

But here’s my real take. It’s fine that developers are planning on replacing the two-story building that houses the Showbox with a mixed residential and commercial building. In fact, it’s a net positive. Here’s why: Seattle’s new Mandatory Housing Affordability program, which makes developers either build a certain percentage of affordable housing on site or contribute to an affordable housing fund, means new downtown housing generates serious cash for affordable housing. In the specific case of Onni’s plans for the Showbox, MHA’s upzone requires a $10.85 per square foot payment toward affordable housing, which means the project will generate somewhere around five million dollars for affordable housing. (Under the city’s affordable housing plan, Onni also has the option to build affordable housing on site.)<

And if 442 fancy market-rate apartments still isn’t your idea of good development, keep in mind, downtown Seattle, from Pioneer Square to Belltown, is already home to 10,000 affordable subsidized units,  more than 35 percent of Seattle’s total affordable housing stock. For one neighborhood to provide a plurality of all the city’s affordable housing stock is remarkable.

For a city that’s facing a housing affordability crisis (and where market-rate housing hasn’t kept up with our population boom), the Onni development is a win.

No, low-income people can’t afford to live in brand-new high-income housing downtown. But if no one is building housing for the tens of thousands of workers who are moving here, those people start to compete for existing housing, driving up rents down the line. The only way out of this spiral is to build more housing. And: Today’s market-rate housing is tomorrow’s middle-income housing is tomorrow’s “naturally occurring affordable housing.

Another thing I like about Onni’s plans is that they call for just one parking spot for every five units— 88 parking spots for 442 apartments. In a city that has 1.6 million parking spaces—5.2 per household, 3.7 per car—Onni’s downsized garage is a welcome change in priorities, matching the city’s future vision for a pro-pedestrian and transit oriented downtown.

Arts and cultural spaces are vital to cities—music and art, with lines stretching around the block, represent important political and community assets for any town. (Seeing avant garde R&B crooner Serpentwithfeet at Barboza last month was one of my favorite nights in Seattle in 2018 so far.)

But Showbox or no Showbox, Seattle is currently jammed with cultural spaces (1,132 of them), including about 120 music venues.

In short, saving the Showbox won’t make you 21 again, but there plenty of places for 21-year-olds to go in 2018.

The outcry to save the Showbox is just more nostalgic pique from a public in the throes of anxiety about change. Preserving memories is not the job of cities. Successful cities are the ones that constantly build new memories. The simple secret to doing that: Stop living in the past.

20 thoughts on “The J Is for Judge: More Housing, Less Nostalgia”

  1. At $350,000 per unit, $5 million builds fewer than 15 new housing units. I don’t think even the nonprofit providers are bringing them in in Seattle for much less than that, but if you want to argue, go ahead and use 20 units as your number for the $5 million.

    So really? Maybe 20 units of housing for major cultural disruption, historic erasure, performing arts discontinuity, and destroyed place-making? I don’t think so.

  2. You’re from Maryland -its mystifying how you assume your take has any validity to those of us who actually grow up here. Have you seen any of the feedback people have about the Onni group? That kind of bs works well on the East Coast but it doesn’t float here.

  3. “Preserving memories is not the job of cities.” Actually, it kinda is. Seattle has a checkered history with historic preservcation, having lost many great buildings to unfettered growth. A souless city full of bland modernist high-rises is just bringing suburban homogeneity to vital urban areas. Death Cab for Cutie has a new song “Gold Rush” which is about how tearing down old buildings tears down memories–it is mainly about Capitol Hill. This is not about “nostalgic pique”, this is about retaining some identity–historic preservation is an adjunct to conservation of nature. Letting a developer buy off the city with cash, as opposed to creating affordable housing units, is not addressing the housing crisis–in fact it is just the opposite. Luxury apartments house considerably fewer residents than affordable housing per square foot and drive up the cost of the surrounding land, pricing the city out of building affordable housing in those areas (if the money doesn’t wind up elsewhere). This pushes affordable housing further into the exurbs and increases the commuter pool (assuming anyone can find affordable housing in the immediate vicinity of Seattle. This is like a timber harvester agreeing to “mitigate” an area they’ve just clear-cut, instead of preserving a structural canopy to retain the wildlife that live there. No amount of mitigation is going to repair the damage of the loss of old growth and displacement of the residents to less hospitable environs. Extending that logic to urban areas–you don’t have to destroy a village to save it.

  4. Josh’s justifications for tearing down the Showbox and constructing another high-rise tower are the same as 50 years ago when developers wanted to tear down the Pike Place Market and replace it with a series of modern towers. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

  5. We’re not “anxious about change,” we’re opposed to bad change. Successful cities are ones that know the difference. They change the things that aren’t so great and keep the things that are. And we’re not living in the past, we’re concerned with leaving a quality city for future generations. So your conclusion was wrong on three counts.

    1. Could you please define, “bad change”, “things that aren’t so great” and “things that are”?

  6. I really appreciate this take, and wholeheartedly agree with you! Look forward to future columns.

  7. “there are other places for 21-year-olds to go”.

    Well, I guess that settles it. So many bad takes. By this zero-sum logic, as long as money is collected for affordability and “other places exist”, tear everything down regardless of the individual merits of a project or the value of what’s being displaced. History aside, this might be more convincing if you cited examples of venues that match the Showbox in terms of capacity, experience, booking, and location.

  8. “The only way out of this spiral is to build more housing.” Wrong, it’s not the “only way.”

    First, the need is for more affordable housing not just “more housing.” Second, there are other ways to raise and spend money to build that affordable housing; a linkage fee on development would work without giving up zones. Some are listed in the HALA report, others in the Community Housing Caucus Recommendations—

    Your little rant also fails to address the explosion in highly paid job growth (that causes the insane rise in rental and housing costs) due to City capitulation to Paul Allen and Vulcan (more up zones!) to create Amazonia for Mr. Bezos.

    How many land use decisions in a row that favor the wealthy at everyone else’s expense do we need?

  9. Urbanists typically fail to mention that the “filtering” theory that new housing trickles down to become naturally affordable housing takes 40 years, according to their own theorists. Seattle can’t wait that long. It will take large investments in subsidized, rent-limited housing to house Seattle’s homeless population, $400 million a year according to a recent study by consulting firm McKinsey & Co That’s double what we’re spending from all sources. Large corporations and the very wealthy need to pay their fair share.

    1. Seattle has decided that the best way to fund subsidized housing is through incentives and taxes on…wait for it…market rate housing. So if you actually care about the former in the current political environment, it doesn’t make any sense to oppose the latter.

    2. Sarajane, your otherwise spot-on comment repeats the common error: the McKinsey report’s figure of $400M/yr covered King County, not just Seattle.

  10. Dear Josh,
    They are paying you to write what you did about the SHOWBOX THEATER? You sound rather clueless.
    Firstly yes it is the ‘job’ of cities to preserve the past, which is really the present. What goes along with our past is oh, this is easy…..great art, rock ‘n roll, whiskey, tried and true recipes, memory, learning, science, mathematics, humankind, celebrations, jobs well done, movies, design, fireworks, language, beer, and our experiences, all that we remember.
    We learn plenty from the past, if we don’t see and experience buildings, landscapes, smells, visuals, audibles, tastes, touches, etc. we have to reinvent things and our experiences. That gets in our way just like tearing down what was built before gives us no record, or reference to go forward.
    If you have ever had a really good anything it was because there was memory attatched to it. I have had enough memory of cheap, unremarkable huge glutting buildings in anywhere in our city. There is, right now, an excess of places where people can find housing–it is in all the new buildings that most people with ‘taste’ don’t want. Yep, the people with ‘taste’ are mostly those that have had some education in appreciation of the finer things in life. Our city is now ugly and visually unexciting because overdevelopment has taken away the representatives of past experiences, good quality construction, craftmanship, evidence of care and respect. A new building of the same stainless steel refrigerators, no woodwork, concrete stairs, uncomfortable lofts, computerized, stamped-out architecture with the same uninspired look as countless others is certainly what Seattle should avoid. We’ve had enough.
    There is not a housing crisis just a bunch of Seattle fools ready to believe there is at the expense of the people of experience and quality. Like shooting fish in a barrel….our city leaders are for the developers to ‘get over’ on. You, Josh, just provided us with your inexperience as our Seattle administrators have been doing in giving away our farm with our memories we want to keep.
    The SHOWBOX is much more important to Seattle than yet another big ugly box. It is a destinaton for many, many tourists. It is right downtown; that is where other tourist attractions are as well. And that is why the Vancouver developer wanted that spot, not because of the zoning in neighborhoods prohibiting development.
    The location of the SHOWBOX isn’t far from the big tourist spots…the big wheel, waterfront, Pike Place Market, Space Needle, etc. That is the reason for development preference. Location, location location.
    In this case the SHOWBOX just outweighs all the new ideas for landuse there. Go back home Vancouver developer, we don’t need you.

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