Save The Showbox? Should have saved Arena, too
The outpouring of support this week for somehow preserving The Showbox is no surprise. In fact, it’s almost a ritual around here when some well-known public space — restaurant, tavern, bowling alley, movie theater — is threatened with demolition. First comes news of the imminent demise, then comes the flurry of memories and, finally, the inevitable calls for saving the doomed structure.
I’ve been involved in the local historic preservation community for decades as a volunteer on a few preservation campaigns, as a board member of the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation and as a King County Landmarks Commissioner.
Being smart about preserving key elements of the built environment helps ensure that the distinctive visual and cultural parts of our community remain long after all of us have passed on. Big cities that depend on attracting investors and visitors from around the world know that this is important to sustaining a healthy community.
One thing I’ve learned over the years is that privately-owned buildings, when the private owner doesn’t want to preserve them, are very difficult to save. All those landmark designations and listings on registers of historic places are, it often turns out, useless when the owner isn’t willing or interested in preserving the building — no matter how much people love it, or how many great memories people have of attending events there.
And that’s why it’s a little frustrating to see so much attention focused on the privately-owned Showbox when so little attention was paid before the Seattle Center Arena was demolished in 2017.
That building, originally constructed in the late 1920s, hosted hundreds of well-known artists and had been the site of thousands of games, concerts, and other memorable events throughout its history – including six months of the iconic, city-changing 1962 Seattle World’s Fair.
Of course, word of the Arena’s imminent demise didn’t get the kind of media exposure that The Showbox has. Personally, I only found out about the Arena when I drove by one day and saw the fences in place and the heavy equipment operators whacking away at the building’s façade. At that point, it was far too late to do anything to preserve it.
If word had gotten out further in advance and if there had been an outpouring of support for saving the Seattle Center Arena, chances are the public officials and elected leaders would’ve been forced to respond, and to possibly change their plans for tearing it down and replacing it with a new home for the Seattle Opera. Look no further than at how what’s now KeyArena is being preserved and adapted to create a new facility for basketball and hockey at Seattle Center.
I’m not against the opera having a new home, but, unlike The Showbox, the Arena belonged to us. We all could’ve had a say in its future because we were the owners – not some private property developer from out of town.
So, while efforts to save The Showbox continue, I’d encourage you to take a look around your neighborhood and figure out what publicly-owned buildings you care about. Find out which public agency is the owner – city, school district, utility, etc. – and politely inquire as to how they intend to care for this particular public resource in the future.
You never know, there might already be plans in the works for replacement. But the sooner you find out, the sooner you – with help from organizations such as the Washington Trust for History Preservation or the King County Landmarks Commission – can do something about it.
After all, all those historic public buildings belong to you.