Maybe Metropolis: The NIMBY Illusion

Image via Grand Illusion Cinema (Facebook)

By Josh Feit

Back in 2018—as a Gen X traitor, evidently—I editorialized against saving the Showbox. I was opposed to making policy based on ’90s nostalgia and was for building new housing coupled with the $5 million in affordable housing funds the development would generate from the city’s Mandatory Housing Affordability program.

At the time, a City Hall legislative staffer asked me in earnest if there was any spot around town that would turn me into a NIMBY if it was slated to get torn down and replaced with fancy condos? I honestly couldn’t think of anything that fit the bill.

But now comes the latest in Seattle-is-changing news: The Grand Illusion, the independent movie house at 50th and University Way NE (the Ave), may be the next casualty of real estate development. It’s still not 100 percent clear what the fate of the Grand Illusion will be, but according to a January 23 Daily Journal of Commerce report, real estate developer Kidder Mathews is offering the building for $2.8 million on behalf of the theater’s longtime owner. For now, the theater, which has been around since 1970, has signed another two-year lease, and they say they’re set on finding a new home.

The news hits me in the gut. True story: Just 10 days before I read about the Grand Illusion’s hazy future, I went to a movie at the groovy theater (for the first time since the pandemic, and likely even well before that). Excited to find the place as lively as ever—a disheveled goth was working at the combo ticket/refreshments booth before a nearly sold-out Friday night show—I ended up making a contribution to the nonprofit the very next day. Over the years, I’ve seen countless indie, foreign, art, and cult films at the Grand Illusion while eating a bucket of popcorn heavily dusted in nutritional yeast. I even attended former Seattle city council member Nick Licata’s wedding there, sitting in the rickety yet plush red seating. I’ve also spent a healthy dose of time in the adjacent tortured-poet coffee shop. The Grand Illusion defines Ave culture.

The countercultural Seattle landmark is in a precarious spot because current Seattle zoning prohibits housing and businesses just about everywhere else in the city.

As a pro-development urbanist, I could be called a hypocrite for fretting over the fate of this charming, grunge-y spot. But actually, the potential closure of the Grand Illusion simply confirms the basic problem with Seattle’s zoning code I’ve been writing about for more than 20 years. The reason developers buy up spots in exciting locations like 50th and the Ave. is because these spots are typically located in the few slices of the city that are zoned for multi-family and mixed-use development. “Under current zoning, the listing … estimates that a six-story building could yield 31 apartments,” the DJC reported.

This fact underscores an even more germane point: Offing the Grand Illusion for density is redundant. The block where the theater now stands already works the way a smart city should, with its surrounding dense zoning and plentiful transit. Unfortunately, the area is an oasis of six- and seven-story neighborhood commercial zoning in a desert of land zoned for low-density and single-family housing (and no commercial space). We don’t need more businesses and housing on the Ave.—we need them in the surrounding low-density residential zones.

The YIMBY position remains as it has always been: Put more housing and businesses in the suburban-esque tracts of Seattle where we should have more economic diversity. Unfortunately, with density cordoned off into just 25 percent of the city’s residential land, developers have limited places to build. And so it’s the dense urban areas where beloved, longstanding institutions—Piecora’s on Capitol Hill, Mama’s Mexican Kitchen in Belltown, Tup Tim Thai on Lower Queen Anne—get replaced by apartments. Meanwhile, the strictly single-family tracts stay untouched as the people who live there see their assets grow.

I’m not going to start a petition drive or sign onto a “Save the Grand Illusion” campaign—a la the cringe-worthy, largely white and Gen X effort to save the Showbox. Instead, I’ll point out that the news comes with an explanation slow-growthers won’t like: The Grand Illusion isn’t on the chopping block because of some pro-developer bent in Seattle’s zoning rules. The countercultural Seattle landmark is in a precarious spot right now because current Seattle zoning restricts housing and businesses just about everywhere else in the city.

18 thoughts on “Maybe Metropolis: The NIMBY Illusion”

  1. The Grand Illusion space was only left to be a theater all those years because the owners couldn’t or wouldn’t make a deal that worked (rumors about the adjacent property owners refusing to sell to them were never confirmed when I worked there in the 80s).

    The arts seem to flourish in spaces like the GI, or the former University Theater (now all boarded up and waiting for a timely arson); spaces too small or legally challenging to develop into larger projects, left to sit empty or be underutilized (according to real estate standards). Sam Israel owned most of Pioneer Square, and didn’t care what happened to it. He let the buildings run down, but he rented them out at less than market rates, so plenty of little theaters and studios flourished there.

    What bothers me is how much of the Ave is left vacant for DECADES. Between the UW and the other landowners, the Ave remains a wasteland of underused properties; there’s little or no imagination on the landlord’s part on how to use those spaces. And new development rules require first floor retail that is unsuited to anything that’s not a retail shop or a take out restaurant (lacking height and adequate exits or a loading zone). You won’t get another theater on the Ave; it won’t pencil out for the national property management company.

    Is the Allegro still open?

  2. >> The Grand Illusion isn’t on the chopping block because of some pro-developer bent in Seattle’s zoning rules. The countercultural Seattle landmark is in a precarious spot right now because current Seattle zoning restricts housing and businesses just about everywhere else in the city.

    Yes, this. It is why this house, for example, was torn down, to put up an apartment: From a financial standpoint, that conversion doesn’t make sense. There are thousands of houses that sit on much bigger lots. Converting those would be a much better deal, as those houses are worth a lot less. But because lots zoned for apartments are so rare, and so special, it doesn’t matter what is on them.

    That is the sad truth about the preservationist nature of the highly restrictive zoning. They don’t preserve existing structures — quite the contrary. Single family homes get destroyed all the time to build bigger homes. Or really big lots (25,000 square feet) get converted to a handful of pretty big lots (3 lots over the 7,200 square foot — the minimum lot size in much of the city). The doesn’t preserve the nature of the neighborhood (middle class housing is being replaced by McMansions) it only preserves the general density, which is complete bullshit. Residential neighborhoods not too far from Lake City were always less desirable than areas further south (no view, no great parks, often no sidewalks). But instead of building row houses everywhere (the equivalent of the cheap bungalows of old) it is nothing but huge houses on big lots going up. At least for most of the land.

    There is nothing fundamentally wrong with trying to preserve particular structures, or the combination of structure/use. That approach may go overboard, but you certainly don’t want an extreme on either end. What is complete bullshit is trying to preserve the neighborhood density, i. e. limiting places to large lots with one house on them. Once you decide that a place isn’t worth preserving (which is the vast majority of structures in this city) then we should allow multi-family development there.

  3. And here we see the true hypocrisy of Seattle style “urbanism”. It is best described as YIYBY, or Yes In Your Back Yard. We need housing. But not here. We need Light Rail. But not through here. Everything I hold dear is sacrosanct, or in the wrong location. I must not suffer. My desires and perspective and perfect. It is you who must suffer, or live in the wrong place. Your location is ripe for growth and change. I have done all the growing and change I ever need to.

    You can see this everywhere. In transit, with the infill push and cries to cut it off at Lynnwood and Federal Way: Those living farther out simply live in the wrong place. In housing, where those homeless who live in Seattle simply need to move away (some even say to different states). It is always somebody else’s problem, or shortcoming. It is a sickness of the ego, and it is rampant here. It and the love of money are what are ruining Seattle, not crime, or drug use, or taxes. Just ordinary people, with loud enough voices that they they can echo “It would be better over here…” through modern media and get it heard.

    If we are Seattle, then it is our problem. Even if it does not directly impact our neighborhood or community. Ours to work on, and to help fix. And that means we all make sacrifices. Even if it is our beloved old crappy theater.

    1. You appear to be criticizing the author for not being an extremist. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with some preservation. Everyone has their own opinion where to draw that line, but it is pretty easy to find common ground somewhere. Even the most adamant YIMBY is willing to preserve some buildings. Tear down the Holyoke Building or Smith Tower? Get real. Likewise, at the opposite end of the spectrum you will find that even the most adamant preservationist really only wants to preserve a tiny percentage of the buildings in Seattle. This explains why there are no outcries from anyone in the city to change the rules governing the replacement of one house with another on a lot zoned for single family only. Battle it out between the folks on both sides of the spectrum and you are still dealing with peanuts. The arguments are over a really tiny portion of the city.

      The desire to preserve particular buildings or their use is not what is pushing up the cost of development, or slowing down the construction of new buildings. It is a rounding error in the equation. Again, we are talking about a very tiny percentage of the buildings in the city. In contrast, a very small percentage of land is zoned for apartments. This of course pushes up the cost. Then you have all the other bullshit, like design review. All of this adds to the cost of building an apartment, which is why you don’t see more of them.

      Put it this way — why not put the apartment 3 blocks to the north, or the south? There are dozens and dozens of cheaper lots. The simple answer is: zoning. It would be against the law.

      1. No, I criticize the author because I feel like I notice a very problematic trend in their opinion, and the opinion of those like them. One that points to an inner bias that *is* harmful to the city. One theater isn’t going to make or break anything, no. But the sum of all the ‘theaters’ that those with influence or a mouthpiece in this city is precisely what prevents zoning reform from ever happening. Too many people unwilling to compromise

  4. Cities without culture are dense suburbs – its OK to want a funky theatre that shows off-beat film to remain, no need to flog yourself about that – heck what would be cool is if the developer bought the building and carved out a new spot for The Grand Illusion. Rows of dull buildings filled w mindless retail: banks, mobile phone shops, fast food, etc do not a city make. We need to be able to save institutions and that doesn’t always mean we need to save the building.

    1. Exactly. We are really only talking a tiny percentage of places, too. Ask the most ardent preservationist to draw little circles around all the buildings they would want to preserve. Now zoom out. They are tiny little dots, scattered everywhere. They make up a very tiny percentage of the city. Now draw little polygons that are zoned for single family. Zoom out, and you can see it from outer space. They make up the vast majority of land in the city.

      1. Funny you should agree with “Rows of dull buildings filled w mindless retail: banks, mobile phone shops, fast food, etc do not a city make.” Ross, when you champion floor level retail residential buildings that end up creating exactly that on a ground level.

  5. Josh, zoning and private property rights don’t work that way. If I own property and wish to tear something down and build something else, as long as it’s to code and in the right zoning…. that’s my right to do so. Changing the zoning (a good thing) means more apartments, but it doesn’t mean they’re affordable and it doesn’t mean things like your beloved movie theater don’t get torn down as well. So goodbye, Grand Illusion…. I loved that place as well.

    Jeeze, are you and Erica going to draw up maps with what buildings should be torn down and what buildings are “culturally important” to you and get to stay in the neighborhoods you love? Cities are living things…. change happens all the time…. and zoning can sorta steer that, but it can’t control it.

    1. >> Zoning and private property rights don’t work that way.

      Actually it does. Hear me out. There is a certain value to the theater as a theater. There is a certain value to the land as land. But the value to the land for conversion to apartments is higher than it would be otherwise, because of how little is zoned for apartments. This means that it is more likely to be converted to an apartment than it would be otherwise.

      Put it another way. Imagine you are looking to put up an apartment. You look at the property that is available. Every day there is land sold that could hold an apartment. But most of the time, it is illegal to put an apartment there. Even mere blocks away from the theater it is illegal. So you wait and wait until someone sells land that that can handle an apartment.

      The point being that without our bizarre zoning laws, it is quite likely that the theater would simply remain a theater, just like the Showbox would remain the Showbox.

      1. I can remember all kinds of cool, funky places in Seattle and Tacoma in the 1980s than don’t exist now. Saw lots of really cool bands that nobody remembers. Life goes on and it’s a bitch getting old. The Grand illusion meant something to Josh, (and me too) but young people are going to move into those new apartments and make their own memories… and who cares about the memories of the old geezers who remember the “Grand Illusion”? And who the hell is Nick Licata? LOL! Or Norm Stampler? Or Jeanette Williams?

        Seems like yesterday I was walking to the Community World Theater to see Coffin Break…. the place in the NW that punk rock went to die. But time moves on….. I’m pretty sure zoning changes can’t turn back the clock.

  6. I think it’s time we say “enough” to development mania. It’s not benefiting many beyond the developers themselves. Despite all the money we’ve thrown at the issue and all the attacks on SF zoning, and all the purported housing MHA is supposed to have built (where is that, btw?), it is obvious to anyone thinking clearly that these solutions to street camping and other housing issues ARE NOT WORKING. Wanting to live here or there doesn’t logically demand that room be made; people live where they can afford to live. So, I completely oppose razing another community treasure for another souless warren of tiny rooms built poorly and of poor materials. Just go away! Live where there’s housing you can afford and leave Seattle alone!

    1. “Get off my lawn!”

      Seattle hasn’t built enough housing to keep up with job growth, of course there will be challenges requiring a more sophisticated response than hiding under a pillow. Who says who gets to stay. Maybe the anti-growthers should move somewhere they can reasonably expect things to never change. That’s not how cities work.

      1. If we had some money to throw around, maybe we could make something that was architecturally cool in an old fashioned way and keep some character in places like the u-district. Remember the Last Exit? Such a cool place – pie, cocoa and chess in that old multilevel building. Such a great hangout place! We need more of those around the campus.

    2. So basically the answer to a food shortage is to limit the ability of farmers to grow food. Hmmm, interesting take.

      1. Ah, there’s lots and lots of land in the USA to build on and almost all of it is way cheaper than Seattle. There’s land in New Mexico and the Midwest than can be had for pennies on the Seattle dollar. There’s houses all over the USA under 150k…. With working from home as an option now, young educated people can leave Seattle and find a place to live they can actually afford.

        I think you know that the real problem isn’t sprawl or land use or anything environmental….. Josh just wrote about a theater he loves that’s getting tore down to make way for something new. I know it’s hard, but life moves on…. Seattle will move ahead and it’s just not going to be the same place that we older folks loved… Progress isn’t easy.

        It’s now crazy expensive to live in Seattle and there’s no magic time machine that rolls rent back to $1200 a month. Even when zoning changes in Seattle, and it will, there’s no way to build new housing without millions and millions of dollars. Let’s say the “Grand Illusion” was saved and new zoning allowed for 6 houses to be torn down to build apartment instead…. What do you think you’d have to pay to get 6 houses in the U-District? Wallingford? 15 million? 20 million if all 6 were together? How much for utility work? Can the sewer or water pipes put in 75 years ago even handle 30 plus apartments? Who pays for new sidewalks?

        Maybe tearing down the “Grand Illusion” is the best value for new housing?

      2. “Let’s say the “Grand Illusion” was saved and new zoning allowed for 6 houses to be torn down to build apartment instead…. What do you think you’d have to pay to get 6 houses in the U-District? Wallingford? 15 million? 20 million if all 6 were together?”

        Why buy six lots? The land the Grand Illusion sits on is 4,120 square feet. That’s below average for just one single-family house lot. That gets back to the point the author was making: this theater is already a more dense, productive use of land than the vast majority of lots in the city. If you could legally replace any of Seattle’s 100,000 single-family homes with 31 apartments (or even 10 apartments), there would be plenty of sites that would look more appealing for development than this theater.

      3. Eric,

        First of all there’s basic zoning laws cities fallow to prevent 5 story buildings next to single family homes…. it’s called the missing middle. It’s possible to build 2-3 story 4 unit buildings next to a house without blocking all the sunlight in backyard. I’m guessing that sort of low rise redevelopment is coming to a neighborhood near you. Slowly…. Over the next 20 years…. things will change.

        The 3 biggest factors in real estate or location, location, location. Some people want have apartments in the middle of things. The lot the Grand Illusion sits on is prime real estate. Josh wouldn’t be the least upset if the development was wiping out a bank….or a drugstore…. and not a theater he’s emotionally attached to. In full disclosure, I’m also a big fan of the Grand Illusion as well. But Cities are alive and they change…. the stuff you loved when you were young is often gone by the time you’re old.

Comments are closed.