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Seattle erupts over plan to tear down theatre for tower block

The city has rustled up a movement against the loss of Showbox - the venue of rock, grunge, jazz and blues stars


PEARL JAM, Soundgarden and Macklemore played there, as did the greats of an earlier era, such as Duke Ellington and Muddy Waters.

Now, there is a plan to tear down Seattle's iconic Showbox theatre to make way for a 44-storey apartment tower - and the city is hopping mad.

For a town that prides itself for its outsize musical history, from Jimi Hendrix to the grunge scene of the 1990s, the proposal represents the ultimate growing pain: Should a venue that made the city so cool be razed to build more homes for tech workers?

Since the plans were made public last month, more than 90,000 people have signed an online petition to declare the venue a historic landmark.

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Dozens of prominent musicians - from Death Cab for Cutie frontman Ben Gibbard to Katy Perry - have voiced their opposition to the demolition.

The city council passed a measure on Monday that would temporarily protect the theatre. The mayor is trying to broker a deal with the developer to save the venue.

As a Showbox employee told the council at a hearing on Wednesday: "It's literally a battle between culture and profit."

Lost in the public uproar is a more nuanced tale that is full of contradictions. The city paved the way for taller buildings on the site just last year as part of a broader plan to ease an affordable housing crisis.

The theatre itself is far from a charity case. The building is owned by a strip-club magnate who leased it to a global concert promoter and now wants to sell it to a Canadian developer to cash in.

Kevin Schofield, a former Microsoft Corp manager who now writes a blog about city-council matters, said: "There's no little guy that we're rooting for here, other than musicians who get to play at the Showbox. This is a big-business deal between big corporations."

Seattle was primed to have a debate like this. For nearly two years, the city has had the fastest home-price increases of any big US metro area. Cranes tower over its skyline, and tens of thousands of transplants - many highly paid professionals - have come to the city, as companies such as Amazon, Facebook and Google parent Alphabet set up shop.

As new offices and apartments go up, dozens of local haunts have been forced to relocate or close. What is so striking about the reaction to the Showbox, however, is how swiftly the opposition mobilised, spurring elected officials into action.

Pearl Jam led chants of "Save the Showbox" during its sold-out show at Seattle's Safeco Field last Friday; popular musicians have also taken to Twitter to voice their opposition.

Plans for the site leaked in the Seattle Daily Journal of Commerce on July 25, outlining how Vancouver-based developer Onni Group had filed with the city to build a 442-unit residential tower on the site after buying it from Roger Forbes, a strip-club owner and businessman.

A division of AEG, a powerhouse in the global concert business, said it plans to continue running the music venue while the proposal progresses.

Then, in a twist, Onni said it planned to nominate the building as a historic landmark. The move was seen as an effort to speed up the permitting process and head off a debate that was bound to happen. Onni had used a similar tactic as it redeveloped former Seattle Times buildings, said the newspaper. Three local historic-preservation groups filed a separate proposal to nominate the venue as a landmark.

Outrage grew. On Aug 6, socialist city council member Kshama Sawant introduced an ordinance that would have extended the boundaries of a historic district protecting Seattle's iconic Pike Place Market to include the Showbox steps away. Passing the measure would have subjected businesses in the area to stringent rules around everything from signage to ownership changes, while giving the city two years to mull its next step.

Large crowds turned up at council last week to voice support of the measure, which was amended so that it only includes the Showbox site and will last 10 months. On Monday, cheers erupted from the audience after the lawmakers voted unanimously to approve it.

The quick action shows how Seattle's council continues to push measures that are politically popular but at odds with the business community, said Mr Schofield.

For council member Lisa Herbold, the Showbox debate reflects the kind of balancing acts faced by many booming metros. She said: "A lot of fast-growing cities are dealing with this tension between how you grow and change ... but how you also preserve the things that are bridges to your history. I think it's really important to maintain some of those bridges." BLOOMBERG

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