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.