The J Is for Judge: Save the Past, Jeopardize the Future

It turns out it wasn’t a NIMBY uprising in Seattle’s single-family neighborhoods that successfully blitzed new housing development in Seattle. Embraced by our supposedly progressive council and Mayor Jenny Durkan, a reactionary stand in the heart of downtown Seattle to save a two-story music venue, the Showbox, has set the precedent for successful self-centered obstructionism.

In 2017, the city council passed a series of six neighborhood upzones: five in densely populated commercial/residential Urban Centers  including downtown, South Lake Union, Chinatown International District, Uptown,  and the University District, and one in a  Residential Urban Village, 23rd & Union-Jackson, a less dense but still bustling multifamily combo residential/commercial zone. The unanimous council votes to upzone these multifamily, transit-rich neighborhoods were mostly embraced by neighborhood groups—most notably on 23rd, where community relations with the city had initially been tense.

The upzones, under a policy known as MHA (Mandatory Housing Affordability), tied new development to building affordable housing, trading increased density for affordable housing requirements; MHA has a goal of creating 6,000 affordable units in 10 years. Any developer that builds in these upzoned neighborhoods  has to either make a commensurate payment into a city affordable housing fund or build a corresponding amount of affordable housing on site.

What I didn’t expect was that a pro-housing, pro-density urban center like downtown, where the upzone is already on the books, would turn out to be the Seattle NIMBYs’ Battle of Yorktown.

Following up this year, the city turned to a comprehensive upzone in Seattle’s remaining Urban Centers and Urban Villages, multifamily areas of varying density ranging from the rest of the city’s more dense Urban Centers like Northgate and Capitol Hill to Residential Urban Villages such as Rainier Beach and Crown Hill. This larger rezone, which ultimately includes 27 neighborhoods, also encompasses additional multi-family and commercial zones on the outskirts of the city’s single-family zones. The 27 upzones would slightly expand ten of the Urban Center and Urban Village zones. The result: About six percent of the adjacent SFZs, where only detached single-family housing is currently allowed, would be rezoned into slightly denser Residential Small Lot zones, Lowrise zones, and Neighborhood Commercial zones, adding what pro-housing urbanists call “Missing Middle” housing—small-scale developments that fit in seamlessly with single-family housing.

Like the original six hub urban center upzones, the broader upzones all came with MHA requirements to build or fund affordable housing.

Given that SFZs take up a lopsided 65 percent of the city’s developable land, rezoning a slender six percent of the SFZs for multifamily housing seems more than reasonable, especially at a time when Seattle isn’t building enough housing to keep up with our dramatic population growth.

However, the upzones have stalled: A coalition of appellants representing single family zones are currently fighting the upzone in front of the city hearing examiner. And it drags on and on.

Despite the welcoming “In this House” signs that are ubiquitous throughout Seattle’s SFZs, the foot-stomping intransigence from exclusive single-family neighborhoods against adding housing to their suburban-style enclaves is hardly surprising. Seattle’s liberal hypocrisy rolls that way.

What I didn’t expect was that a pro-housing, pro-density urban center like downtown— where the upzone is already on the books—would turn out to be the Seattle NIMBYs’ Battle of Yorktown. The fight to “Save the Showbox” has stalled one of the first building proposals to come under the new progressive MHA policy—Vancouver developer Onni’s proposal to replace the Showbox with a 440-foot, 442-unit apartment tower with ground-level retail that would have raised $5 million in one fell swoop for affordable housing.

In yet another city hall 180, the council voted yesterday to turn last year’s unanimous yea vote to upzone downtown, into a unanimous nay vote for Rock and Roll NIMBYism. The city council voted this week to renege on downtown MHA by making the two-story Showbox off-limits.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised by this either. With its 2018 Pearl Jam mania, Seattle idles in nostalgia.

I understand that unchecked hyper development comes with serious problems like gentrification. But the way to fight gentrification isn’t through symbolic battles on behalf of specific, popular businesses. The way to fight gentrification is by having integrated development and land-use policies that keep affordable housing in the mix in the first place. With the MHA upzones, the city had that very policy in place.

Now, by caving to the first reactionary uprising against the exact policy outcomes MHA was enacted to produce—more housing and more affordable housing—the council has shown that crowd politics informed by nostalgia and resistance-to-change have trumped (ahem) a well-calibrated policy.

I feel like Johnny Rotten walking around London in 1975 in his “I Hate Pink Floyd” T-shirt when I say this: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ the Showbox.

Someone who supports saving the Showbox asked me if I would ever take the side of historic preservation over development. Of course. I visited the reclaimed Lorraine Motel in Memphis earlier this year. American History. Amazing. But arts venues with cool marquees are hardly a rare breed; the Moore, the Paramount, the Egyptian, and the Neptune all come to mind. And there’s plenty of great places to see music in Seattle. I’ve been to a ton of great shows already this year—DoNormaal and Nightspace (Kremwerk), Umami Goddess (Vermillion), Serpent With Feet (Barboza), Wayne Horvitz (the Royal Room), Lorde (Key Arena), Liz Phair and Lisa Prank (the Crocodile), Stas Thee Boss (Chop Suey), Mortuary Drape (The Highline), Mourn and Chastity (Barboza), Orpheus and Eurydice (Seattle Opera Studios).

But when it comes to stopping legal development that includes $5 million for affordable housing  because you want to save a club whose historic value is as omnipresent as 90s nostalgia? You lost me at NIMBY.

12 thoughts on “The J Is for Judge: Save the Past, Jeopardize the Future”

  1. The arguments against saving the Showbox strongly echo the arguments we heard 50 years ago against saving the Pike Place Market. I was here then, and I heard them. It’s truly deja vu all over again. For some folks, housing density trumps every other value we hold in Seattle. Sad.

  2. The $5 million estimate of MHA fees is bonus funding. The larger payoff is the increased property taxes the building will generate maybe $1.5-$2 million a year. Another thing MHA fees fund more than construction of housing, for example short term rental subsidies which generally help people in crisis from losing their apartment and becoming homeless. Anyway, music and culture moves around the city. Venues open and close in relation to where the popular areas of the city are. Look at George Town and Columbia city as compared to pioneer square. Or SODO (skid row) which was a 24 hour music Mecca in early Seattle and a century later is now popular again.

      1. That’s why I called it skid row. But upon further google it appears Seattle’s pioneer square was formally known as skid row. And, SODO is popular for music venues these days.

    1. It’s Skid Road, not Skid Row. Yesler Way was known as Skid Road because Henry Yesler skidded his logs down that road to his waterfront sawmill. Outside of Seattle, Skid Road often got shortened and corrupted into Skid Row, probably by people who weren’t listening very well. And apparently Seattle newbies also use the Row reference. I hope they study some Seattle history sometime.

  3. About that theoretical 5 million, which would be perhaps 2 years away if things went the way y’all seem to doubling down on: The new Arbora Apartment building in the University District was built on land that cost $4 million to buy at half price and $40 million to build. In other words, it would require 8 more Onni buildings to build 133 affordable units. I think it is reasonable to at least consider the possibility of preserving one space that has seen many memorable events. As much as pretty is nice, it is people having been to a place that makes worth preserving. And I mean consider: I do not expect the city to put a bond to preserve the Showbox. I think y’all are either working out a grievance or you want to shout people into being shy by calling them NIMBYs. There are other pro-developers sites that engage in that. Not what I expect here.

  4. When was the last time you checked out the Showbox listings, Josh, or actually attended a show? Plenty of young and POC acts perform there on a regular basis; plenty of paying fans from all over the city and beyond attend. Thanks to Macklemore’s sellout shows there a few years ago, it’s become the benchmark of “I’ve made”-style success for the local hip-hop community. I suspect you know this and are ignoring the facts to continue your tirade but maybe you just don’t.

    Your emoji-wrought comparison to Johnny Rotten says a lot about what’s really motivating you here: It’s cool to stick it to the man! The man, in this case, being a music community under constant siege by nonstop hyperdevelopment and rising cost of living, a community that comprises more than the bogieman NIMBYs and entitled white folks you like to imagine. I appreciate that you saw DoNormaal at Chop Suey that one time, but one show does not an understanding of a complex cultural/musical landscape make.

    Your ongoing contrarian pose on this issue truly is punk rock, Josh–a contrived disgruntledness best left to teenage wannabes looking to piss off mom and dad.

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