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Judge rules against city’s “spot” zoning; Showbox future in doubt

The Showbox Market in downtown Seattle. (Michael Simeona, KIRO Radio)

Declaring that the Seattle City Council violated the U.S. Constitutional rights of the Showbox property owner, a King County judge on Friday voided the city’s restrictions on the parcel and cleared the way for the sale of the land beneath the popular downtown music venue.

Judge Patrick Onishi’s sweeping ruling held that the temporary, historical district designation approved twice by the City Council was nothing more than an illegal “spot zoning” that violated property owner Roger Forbes’ federal due process and equal protection rights.

“We thank Judge Onishi for his ruling today that the City Council’s ordinance concerning 1426 First Avenue is illegal and void. The owners of 1426 First Avenue will now consider next steps concerning the use of this property and will also continue to engage with the Landmark Preservation Board during their review process,” a representative of Forbes said in a news release after Friday’s ruling.

During the past 12 months, the city council had twice approved extending the Pike Place Market Historical District to include the the Showbox land after reports emerged that Forbes had agreed to a $40 million deal sell the land to a developer for a 44-story apartment building.

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Outline of Pike Place Market Historical District with the Showbox addition in grey. (File)

Forbes sued the city following the council’s vote to thwart the development by including the parcel in a historical district half a block away. The council, with public support from local music celebrities and fans, defended its decision as necessary to preserve Seattle’s music and entertainment culture.

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But legal experts at the time expressed skepticism over the council’s plan because it plucked out a single parcel of land in the middle of a block for markedly different zoning than surrounding property — a process derisively  called “spot zoning” by land-use attorneys.

Judge Onishi agreed and said the city of Seattle had no one to blame but itself as it had upzoned that exact parcel years earlier to allow for the type of building the developer had planned. Onishi called the council plan an “illegal spot rezone,” that as of Friday is “hereby void.”

The ruling leaves open Forbes claim for $40 million in damages as a result of the buyer pulling out of the deal when the council voted for the rezone.

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The Pike Place Market Historical District, created by a public vote in 1971, has never included the land under the Showbox in its preservation boundaries, despite multiple revisions to those boundaries since its creation.

Barring an appeal of the ruling by the city, efforts to save the iconic music venue appear to have stalled. Although a city board is set to designate the Showbox an official landmark, that only protects specific elements of the building and doesn’t guarantee preservation of the venue.

Historic Seattle had also recently offered to purchase the building from Forbes, but has made little progress since it first proposed the idea to Forbes in May.

KIRO Radio’s Mike Lewis contributed to this report.

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