The J Is for Judge: Yes, Capitol Hill Has Changed. For the Better.

I was bummed when Seattle’s music community rallied around the Lesser-Seattle cause of saving the Showbox because I believe cities need the arts and their artists to be forces for progressive policy, not forces of obstruction.

Death Cab for Cutie singer Ben Gibbard emerged as the frontman of that parochial crusade, which prioritized nostalgia over housing and embraced the knee-jerk narrative that development is bad.

The  housing/retail high rise that was supposed to replace the two-story Showbox would have generated more than $5 million for affordable housing in one fell swoop under the city’s new Mandatory Housing Affordability policy. It also would have provided hundreds of housing units in one of Seattle’s densest, most transit-rich neighborhoods.

I’m rehashing the Showbox issue because it turns out—judging from the unofficial, version of Death Cab for Cutie’s recent video, “Gold Rush,” (shot among cranes on Capitol Hill)—loopy nostalgia isn’t limited to one-off preservation crusades. If there was a Grammy for NIMBY politics, Death Cab would have it locked.

I don’t mean to be to hard on Gibbard. His explanation of the song on NPR was evocative and poetic. “The song is not a complaint about how things were better or anything like that…It’s an observation, but more about coming to terms with the passage of time and losing the people and the moments in my life all over again as I walk down a street that is now so unfamiliar.”

The fact is, Seattle is leading the way to undo the auto-centric development and land use policies that paved over paradise.

But at this tense and critical moment both nationally and in Seattle, where the populist inclination to be aggrieved by what’s “unfamiliar” can translate into harmful, exclusionary ideologies, it’s worth taking the politics of this local anthem to task.

I’m not exaggerating when I say “Gold Rush” is a NIMBY anthem. After lamenting how developers are tearing down his old haunts in favor profits and parking—“they keep digging it down/down so their cars/can live underground”—here’s the plaintive refrain:

“Change/Please don’t change/Stay/Stay the same”

When Gibbard uses parking as a trope to represent evil developers, he reveals that this song’s phoned-in politics are ill-informed. Sure, it worked for Joni Mitchell in 1970; back then, cities were, in fact, catering to cars with a set of messed-up priorities that we’re still trying to undo today.

The fact is, Seattle is leading the way to undo the auto-centric development and land use policies that paved over paradise.

Most notably, the city has tied the new development Gibbard deplores to reformed parking rules that dramatically reduce the amount of parking.  Check it out: Between 2004 and 2017, the average number of parking stalls for each new apartment unit has actually decreased from 1.57 to 0.63—a 60 percent drop.  And, according to the city, 30 percent of new apartment buildings have no parking at all.

In Capitol Hill, the setting for Death Cab’s mournful video, this progressive trend toward less parking might have something to do with all the groovy change that has come to the neighborhood: A light rail station opened on Broadway and John in 2016, the streetcar came online in 2015, and protected bike lanes on Broadway opened in 2014. None of this green infrastructure existed in the good old days, which are commemorated by an old gas station on the corner of Broadway & Pine. Meanwhile, hundreds of units of affordable housing are in the pipeline thanks to MHA and the new transit-oriented development blueprint for the neighborhood. One of the projects will have 308 units with no more than 20 parking stalls, or a maximum of one stall for every 15 units.

Certainly, Capitol Hill isn’t they gay enclave it was in the 1980s. But what hasn’t changed on Capitol Hill? There are tons of places—more than ever, it seems—for artists to play music and show their art. (There are even pizza places that stay open past 10:45 pm now!) Yes, it’s harder for artists to pay rent on Capitol Hill, but there are more opportunities for artists to be artists on Capitol Hill. And there’s a way to ensure artists can have housing in the city: By building more housing in the city.

15 thoughts on “The J Is for Judge: Yes, Capitol Hill Has Changed. For the Better.”

  1. 2 things can be true at the same time – Seattle and its process for decades successfully fought away density, and is now paying the price. There is precious little aged, dense housing available in the city. New stuff is more expensive because of course it is. But the fact remains that you’re not “saving” anything by fighting the density.

    My wife and I both grew up in the city and both had the house next to our childhood homes (nice, sweet little Seattle bungalows that everyone’s so enamored with) mowed down so a 3000+ sq. ft. single family home could be put in its place and sold for more than $1million.

    That’s not a coincidence, because this exact thing is happening over and over.

    Across the alley from my current home, 2 4 story townhomes went in on the alley. The footprint of the combined footprint would have made a series of great single-story, 2 bedroom or more flats. Instead, building codes that for years have been monkey-ed with to favor SFH’s make it impractical to make that a 4-flat building – elevator requirements, “safety” requirements that are tortured to assure smaller densities and footprints, etc.

    So instead of 4 more affordable units, we get 2 town-towers and the same maximum-mass blocking views, etc.

    I’m a 4th generation Seattlite and this town has done nothing but screw up how it grew until maybe 10-15 years ago. Norm Rice’s urban villages were a good early move, but nothing started really happening until the 2000s to 2010s.

    Unfortunately, that was too late for too many.

  2. It’s so hard to take articles like this seriously when the writer is obviously not an artist, and even harder when their thesis and closing arguments are in direct contradiction.

    But digging deeper into this piece: there is a (foolish) assumptuon here about what will replace the Showbox. It will not create affordable housing. Instead it will bring in ~500 new people who can afford luxury apartments, who will then use their wealth and political clout to vote down the affordable housing initiatives – because those are the NIMBY-est people of all.

  3. Would the author make a similar argument about the Central District, Beacon Hill, Columbia City, the International District, and others?

    I agree that density and moving away from auto-centrism are necessary to support the city’s growth, keep up with housing, and wean us away from car-dependence. But development that displaces the people and communities living there through pricing them out or making it untenable for families to live there – i.e. microapartments – is not sustainable either. We need community-led development, particularly in those neighborhoods made up primarily of people of color who have already been impacted generationally by the racist history of redlining within Seattle.

    I think it’s problematic to have discussion about the merits of development in Seattle without acknowledging the injustice of those that disproportionately have to shoulder the costs of development, and what needs to be done to correct that wrong.

    That being said, I really wish that a fraction of the people who suddenly cared about the Showbox also cared about the black-owned businesses at 23rd and Union.

  4. Oh Heavens! Won’t someone think of the poor, poor Multi-Billion Dollar Property Development Megafirms! Surely endless development will fix all our societal ills. Look how many less homeless people Seattle has since Saint Bezos (Blessed be HIS name), graced our undeserving city with all HIS many buildings.

  5. I like the C when it’s reporting on events and activities, and much less when it’s printing pure one-sided opinion, or better labeled propaganda.

  6. We have not set-aside developer money into affordable housing by any measure. Seattle’s has put up tower after tower, and collected fee after fee, and here we still are, counting our homeless and lamenting the state of affordability in this city. I’m not sure what $5 million would have gotten us in terms of low income units, but certainly not enough to offset the loss of a cultural icon that is the Showbox. You could build this same tower and reap the same benefits of such a real estate project in other parts of the city without tearing up this community space.

    1. There is no universe in which the Showbox is a “community space.” It is a privately owned space that charges a cover fee. Calling it a community space does a disservice to the *actual* community spaces that this city often lacks.

      Erica did a bit recently on brown kids getting kicked out of libraries. A lot of kids are at libraries because there’s no local community center play space for them to play in. Growing up poor, I got kicked out of libraries for being too loud even though there was nowhere else for me to play after school. There’s also a lack of indoor community spaces for musicians/artists to do events. You can be nostalgic for The Showbox, but don’t call it a community space.

      1. I think 100,000 people who signed the petition to save the Showbox would disagree. Yes, there are varying degrees of accessibility, and a cover charge can be prohibitive for some, but it’s more “community” than a private luxury condo.

      2. Petey,

        You seem to have confused “popular” with a “a community space”. Many businesses are popular. That doesn’t make them a community space in the ordinary everyday language sense of the term. have meanings.

    2. Unfortunately, you can’t just “build somewhere else” when every single neighborhood within city limits is also fighting tooth-and-nail to preserve their investments.

      If the outcry over the Showbox was an isolated event, it wouldn’t be a problem, but it isn’t: it’s part of a larger pattern that is screwing over everyone who doesn’t already have a piece of the action.

    1. As Josh says, this is the unofficial version of the video, which is clearly (watch the video) filmed on 11th Ave on Capitol Hill.

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