The J Is for Judge Responds to the Stranger’s Showbox Nostalgia

The Stranger took issue yesterday with my debut column at the C is for Crank where I challenged the nostalgic movement to save the Showbox.

In the column, I argued that knocking down the Showbox to build apartments downtown wouldn’t just replace a two-story building with hundreds of units of sorely needed housing. It would also generate $5 million for affordable housing in one fell swoop. That’s nearly 11 percent of what the Stranger-supported (and since-repealed) head tax would have raised to address the housing crisis over the course of an entire year.

I pointed out that the city has lots of cultural spaces (including music venues) and that sentimental attachment to the Showbox isn’t a legit policy reason to stop a perfectly legal development. I’d add: It’s a slippery subjective standard to shut down new housing because Stereolab once played at the Showbox. Do we want to set the NIMBY precedent that sentimental value is more important than housing?

The Stranger pointed out that in using the numbers from the Seattle Office of Arts & Culture survey, I cited a countywide number for cultural spaces (1,132) instead of the Seattle-only number (821). It’s true. I did. Or put another way: Seattle is currently home to more than 70 percent of the region’s cultural spaces, making us the region’s cultural Mecca.

The Stranger should check its own packed arts calendar. This city is hopping. 

Meanwhile, the Stranger misrepresents me, implying I said there were 121 Showboxes out there. Nope. I said: Saving the Showbox won’t make you 21 again, but there are plenty of places for 21-year-olds to see shows in 2018. The Stranger should check its own packed arts calendar. This city is hopping.

My favorite packed show this year was seeing Stas Thee Boss with JusMoni and Falon Sierra at Chop Suey earlier this summer.

The Stranger article goes on to make the case that the answer to our housing crisis is to build more housing all over the city. I agree. I’ve been arguing that point for nearly 15 years, explicitly noting (back in 2004!) that an out of whack 60-plus-percent of the city is reserved exclusively for single-family housing.

However, saying we need to add more development capacity doesn’t mean we ought to stop development where it’s currently allowed—even if we personally like a business that’s currently there. Arguing against development downtown by saying it should go somewhere else is straight-up NIBMYism. I’ll leave the NIMBYism to the Stranger and say: More units and $5 million for affordable housing please.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t report that the Stranger takes ad money from the Showbox; the paper is currently running a full-page, full color ad from the club.  Stranger publisher Tim Keck would not tell me how much revenue his paper makes annually from Showbox advertising. To be clear, I’m not saying the Showbox called Keck and Keck told his reporter to write pro-Showbox articles. I was news editor at the Stranger for nearly a decade back in the 2000s, and I can tell you there’s nothing that tacky or nefarious going on. In fact, my experience was that Stranger  writers were given a great deal of freedom and independence. However, that independence existed within a business model that was financially symbiotic with successful clubs and nightlife culture leading us to go all in on night life issues like fighting the Teen Dance Ordinance.

Watch for the next installment of the J is for Judge here at the C is for Crank next week.

9 thoughts on “The J Is for Judge Responds to the Stranger’s Showbox Nostalgia”

  1. Your thought process here is understandable, but I think ultimately your conclusion is misguided. Yes, indeed, far too often plain sentimentality or resistance to change has defeated or hobbled vital urban developments, and those missteps, added up, have led to enormous civic problems. Often in fact the “resistance to change” argument (again, say, bringing a subway line to an “upper-class” neighborhood) has been tinged with racism, historically. Rallying against these (often, ironically, self-defeating) bigotries, misunderstandings, or just plain anxieties over change, continues to be vital. I think your goal here is to apply the same unsentimental view to the “liberals” as we have to these aforementioned bigotries. However, like with so many arguments, there’s a danger in taking it to an extreme. I know Penn Station may be the Godwin’s Law of development, but I think we can all agree there are pieces of civic or commercial infrastructure that have value, and that artistic and historic values are legitimate. Just because some “blockers” of development have been myopic and sentimental does not mean all of them are. Once you allow any value to artistic merit, then Showbox at least qualifies to be considered as an important entity. And as usual in these “flip the liberal position to prove a point” arguments, you’re sneaking up on false equivalencies: racism and, er, “liking music” are not similarly myopic stances or similarly “at odds” with development. Moreover there is not an epidemic of “illegitimate” cultural venues blocking development. Finally, these ideas mean nothing if not applied in a humane and practical way to the actual world we live in, and here in Seattle in 2018, there are still tons of parking lots and boarded up storefronts and wasted space in the downtown core. There is absolutely no reason on earth to defend demolishing a venue with even *minimal* value when there’s still an opportunity to build somewhere nearby that disturbs *nothing* of value. Again, I understand how your long and admirable fight for development has perhaps made you cynical of all resistance to change, but I urge you to reconsider in this instance.

  2. I feel like there are some cultural spaces worth saving… However, I’m irriatated that showbox is the one that has gotten the most press. It isn’t unique. It isn’t particularly historical. It’s really just a large mainstream concert venue of which we have several within downtown. Also, aren’t there TWO showboxes within a mile or two of each other?

    It feels like a campaign to save a McDonalds getting torn down… I don’t think there’s a real risk that this kind of massively profitable business will disappear from Seattle. The small time playhouses, dance halls, community spaces which operate as non-profits are the things we should be worried about.

    Let’s talk about the Hugo House, Century Ballroom, Teatro Zinzanni (which is apparently in woodinville since they lost their Seattle venue), Studio Seven (one of the last bastion of Seattle’s rave scene recently closed). Let’s talk about how Seattle only has ONE comedy club now that parlor closed. Let’s save actual unique and difficult to replace cultural assets.

    1. While you have a valid point about saving other institutions (although Teatro Zinzanni, while enjoyable, doesn’t exactly qualify as a non-profit or a landmark or small-time), there are few places in Seattle where Al Jolson and Mae West both performed that are still standing. Historical significance is as valid a reason for landmark status as is architectural significance and the artistic history of the Showbox in the last 80 years is impressive. Just because the Showbox opened another venue in 2007 doesn’t mean that they forfeit their history. If you’ve ever seen photos of the Apollo Theater in Harlem, it’s a very unimpressive façade, but its historical significance is not in question. Nor should be the Showbox.

  3. The redevelopment will probably provide a minimum increase in property taxes of $1,000,000 per year over its current usage as a retail and music venue. The opportunity cost of unrealized taxes, union jobs, housing stock, energy conservation, etc., is massive compared to leaving the property as is.

    1. Are these tax revenues real-world estimates–can you point to the source? Are there subsidies that reduce those taxes? How would those revenues be impacted if the property provided housing to lower-income residents (who also pay taxes)? There are other undeveloped sites that don’t necessitate tearing down the Showbox. Some costs are intangible–the historic nature of the Showbox is not something that can be valued in simple dollars and cents. Sometimes that which seems trivial gets recognition as an integral part of history too late. I was dismayed that Seattle allowed one of the only examples of Googie architecture, the Ballard Denny’s, to be destroyed.This style, highly derided after its heyday, grew to be recognized as a distinct and uniquely American architecture and has become an integral part of LA’s landmark heritage. Victorian-era gingerbread houses were practically unsaleable for many years in the mid-20th century–now they are coveted and whole historic districts built from their presence. All of those opportunity costs you mention, some of which are really transitory benefits, could be realized on any number of parcels. I think high-density develop is a necessity but the costs of its impact on the character and history of the city shouldn’t be ignored for the sake of building expensive housing only for those who can afford it. All those expenses and more will be confronting those taxed with solving the housing problem, and they will be confronting real NIMBYism in trying to site facilities where affordable housing might be built, especially since the rising tax base and cost of construction will make it more costly. Those will be the real opportunity costs, measured not just in dollars, but in the opportunities afforded to the disadvantaged and displaced.

  4. Casting iinsinuations on the motivations of the press, using false statistics and then claiming the lower figure supports your original statement, trying to undermine the work of government–this all sounds very familar. 11 percent of the head tax? How many times does the developer pay that 11 percent? Because the developer is paying a one-time fee and the head tax would’ve been collected over many years. How many 11 percents would you have to negotiate to make up those figures? Not to mention the fact that development increases the price of land in Seattle, meaning that paying instead of building affordable units in a building drives the up the cost to the city to make use of that five million–it may even negate that payment entirely since there are a lot of other costs involved in building and there are opportunity costs that are drifting away. Lots of cultural spaces doesn’t mean the arts are thriving here–it means that there are lots of cultural spaces (which could mean anything from tiny black box theaters to the Museum of Flight). If you’re measuring culture in numbers, you’re using the wrong yardstick. Thanks for telling us how cool you are with your taste in music–that hardly makes you a judge of the arts scene here. Again a full calendar is a full calendar–it doesn’t tell you if theater is thriving in Seattle (it’s not) or if government is attempting to exert control over arts funding (it is). Wrong. Yardstick. Housing is badly needed in Seattle but not for the people who can afford to pay high rent in high rises–there is a surplus of inventory in that strata. Tearing down the Showbox and paying some carbon-tax like one-time fee for putting another expensive tower does little to mitigate the problem and helps drive another nail into the character of the city. This isnt NIMBYism–whose back yard is this? It isn’t about sentiment, it’s about preserving character and quality of life. this is the equivalent of imposing tarriffs on Canada for the sake of “National Security.” This is the equivalent of allowing clearcutting in exchange for “mitigation.” Landmarks, like ecosystems can’t simply be replaced. They’re gone when they’re gone. Seattle’s fraught history of historic preservation has shown there is little benefit to killing the past to questionably “advance” the future.

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