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Seattle Grunge Expert Says Showbox Played Major Part In Genre's Development

Long before Seattle was a tech town, it was a grungy one. In the mid-1980s and '90s, the Emerald City was a dress-down, umbrella-free zone that still boasted a professional basketball team and Ken Griffey Jr. playing baseball for the Mariners. Traffic was doable and the only thing techy about South Lake Union was its manufacturing. 

The interior of the 80-year-old Showbox venue that seats approximately 1,100. It is one of a few music venues in Seattle that can accommodate midsized audiences.

It was during this era that the grunge music scene emerged. Bands like Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Alice in Chains, Soundgarden and Stone Temple Pilots started forming here. Clad in PNW flannel, these bands practiced in basements around the city where rent was still relatively cheap.

Then known more as garage bands, grunge was a subculture that attracted midsized crowds to the city’s handful of medium venues.

If Seattle is the birthplace of grunge, then the Showbox Theater is its cradle. But this important piece of Seattle’s history is in peril. The fate of the 80-year-old music venue is teetering in litigation and hangs on the hope that $40M can be raised to buy the high-value building from its owner.

The trouble began last summer when the Vancouver, British Columbia-based developer Onni Group announced plans to demolish the venue and replace it with a $100M, 442-unit, mixed-use residential and commercial high-rise, according to a report by Q13 Fox News.

In response, the city of Seattle responded by temporarily expanding the boundary of the Pike Place Market Historic District to include the nearby Showbox for 10 months. The building’s owner, an LLC controlled by Roger Forbes, then filed a lawsuit in protest that seeks $40M in damages.

Last month, the Seattle City Council voted to prolong the inclusion another six months. Two weeks later, King County Judge Patrick Oishi voided the council’s actions calling it an “illegal spot rezone,” KIRO 7 reports.

The Landmark Preservation Board will vote this month on whether the site should receive landmark designation, but that designation can’t stop a demolition. The owners have offered to sell the property at fair market value and Historic Seattle, one of the preservation groups working to save the building, has made an offer to buy it. But the asking price of $40M may be too high and details of the deal are not available.

The Showbox is located steps away from Pike Place Market, but a judge recently ruled that it cannot be included in the market's historic preservation zone.

The question is: Is this piece of Seattle’s history worth saving? 

Eric E. Magnuson, a local tour guide and historian who specializes in Seattle’s grunge scene, believes it is. If it is torn down, Seattle loses a depth of character, he said.

“The Showbox is one of the those iconic, big room venues,” he said. “Seattle would no longer have that line to a prior history. You can build new clubs, you can carve out new spaces. They could build the apartment building and keep a venue down below. But it comes back to the nostalgic argument. 

“Keeping this space has far more value than you would gain by putting another club on the same spot,” he said.

And why not maintain a little bit of history, he asked.

“Eighty years is not that long, but it is for a city as young as Seattle,” he said. “There are so many people who live in Seattle now who didn’t live here back then. So much is gone. You have to keep a piece of its history to have a balance.”

The Showbox’s history runs much deeper than grunge. The venue has hosted talent through the jazz era and punk scene. Artists like Dizzy Gillespie, Mae West, the Ramones and Devo played at the venue.

“The Showbox has a long history and goes way back to the '30s, '40s and '50s,” Magnuson said. “It’s such a unique venue for its size and it's been very important for decades.”

CORRECTION, JULY 22, 1:40 P.M. PT: A previous version of this story had the name of developer Onni Group wrong. The story has been updated.