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The Showbox vs housing: Does preservation hurt housing, violate rights?

Fliers for the Save the Showbox campaign. (KIRO Radio, Mike Lewis)

Lost in the fervor of saving Seattle’s iconic venue The Showbox are the implications for property rights and housing.

Historic buildings do not exist in a vacuum. Every time one is preserved, a potential counterbalance is created.

“I do understand this idea that you own property, and you want to sell it, and you can’t profit from it–that seems like an impingement on your property rights,” said KIRO Radio’s Tom Tangney.

“Seems like an impingement?” asked KIRO Radio’s John Curley. “Or is an impingement? You own it and the city stops you.”

After it became known that developers planned to demolish the music venue and turn it into a 44-story apartment tower, a local campaign to save The Showbox emerged. In response, the Seattle City Council unanimously voted to expand the Pike Place Market Historical District to include it.

RELATED: Seattle council approves plan to save The Showbox

“It would be like if you had a house, and then wanted to build a second home next to your house in order to allow your grandparents to live in that house,” Curley said. “And the city stepped in and says, ‘No you can’t build a second home there.’ Well, the people that own this building are now being told they can’t do what they want with it.”

In doing so, the council members ignored a last-minute attempt by developers to delay the vote. While the plan for The Showbox isn’t a permanent one, it does grant a two-year reprieve in the currents of historical designation, so the city can study whether to make the move a permanent one.

Does preserving historical Showbox harm housing?

Preserving one building here and there doesn’t necessarily impact the market. But as Curley points out, these things add up and can have a deleterious impact of housing costs and availability.

“I think every time the city preservation group determines that a property cannot be developed into apartments, there should be a list,” Curley said. “I think the last number I saw in 2017 was that over a 1,000 apartments and condominiums and homes have been stopped by people saying that’s a historic building and cannot be developed. Every time you stop them, there’s a cost.”

He believes it would ideal to involve the owner. So once the historical designation is made, the owner would be paid what the value is. They would then be allowed to up-zone somewhere else where they can get additional value, echoing the practice with historical buildings in Portland.

“But just to come in like this. You going to freeze it in time? It’s going to be locked in amber? You get less building, you get less apartments. You drive up the cost of everybody’s apartment by restricting building.”

For Curley, repeatedly attempting to preserve old Seattle could lead to a situation like San Francisco, where rents have been skyrocketing for decades.

“They did the exact same thing 15 years ago and got really active and did everything they could to maintain historically significant buildings,” Curley said.

“By doing that, what’s the average rent now for a 400 or 500 square place in San Francisco? So I hope everyone enjoys the balance.”

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