When the Music’s Over: Cities Suffer as Venues Fall to Developers
When Pearl Jam led 50,000 people in a chant of “Save the Showbox” in a Seattle stadium last month, the rockers confronted a question facing many cities: When do the cultural costs of a property boom become too high?
The Showbox is an 1,100-person venue across the street from Pike Place Market, Seattle’s top tourist attraction. It opened in 1939 and has hosted acts from Duke Ellington to Prince, as well as the hometown grunge pioneers Pearl Jam.
The venue now risks becoming the latest casualty of the Pacific Northwest city’s real estate rush – and many in the community are saying enough is enough.
“Today one of our great cathedrals is at risk of being leveled,” said Ben Gibbard, lead singer of indie rock band Death Cab for Cutie, at a Seattle City Council hearing in August. “It’s not just a music venue, but a cornerstone of our cultural heritage. We cannot allow this vital piece of our rapidly changing city to be snuffed out.”
Historic venues are being crushed by real estate development in cities across Britain and the United States.
London has lost 35 percent of its independent music venues since 2007, according to the mayor’s office.
In 2014, The New York Observer documented eight significant music venues the city lost over the previous decade, beginning with punk icon venue CBGB and ending with the Roseland Ballroom, another pre-World War II concert hall.
Experts say that the trend affects more than just music fans, bands, and others in the industry.
“Music venues are an early canary in the coal mine,” said Shain Shapiro, head of Sound Diplomacy, a Britain-based consultancy firm on music in cities.
“It’s not just about developing our music industry and providing a great night out,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from London. “It improves the quality of life in increasingly denser and denser cities.”
Music or Housing
Interventions by city governments to save historic venues are rare, but the past few years have seen a few – usually in response to public pressure.
Fans of the Showbox were outraged in July when the Onni Group, a real estate developer headquartered in neighboring Vancouver, Canada, filed plans to build a 44-story building where the venue now sits.
A “Save the Showbox” online petition has garnered about 100,000 signatures. They include members of R.E.M., Jamie xx, The English Beat, and other musicians who have performed there.
Supporters packed the city hall hearing in August waving “Save the Showbox” signs.
Last month, the municipal government approved an extension of the Pike Place Market Historic District’s boundaries to incorporate the Showbox, which will be valid for 10 months.
The legislative move means additional scrutiny will apply to any proposed real estate development on the site, even though it is zoned to accommodate a 44-story building.
In response, the owners of the building housing the Showbox filed a $40 million lawsuit against the city of Seattle earlier this month.
The lawsuit noted that halting the project would mean losing $5 million in fees from the developer, which would go towards funding affordable housing.
Showbox supporters argue that the amount of money raised by the project would be paltry and could come from elsewhere.
“What we would be losing culturally is far more valuable than the amount of money that would go toward affordable housing,” Gibbard said in an interview.
City council member Lorena Gonzalez said she intends to submit a plan this month to permanently protect the building housing The Showbox.
Onni Group, the developer, did not reply to a request for comment.
Authorities in Britain have acted to preserve some well-loved venues, as well as spurring the growth of new ones.
Under British law, developers must sign “Section 106 agreements” before gaining permission to proceed with projects.
Shapiro of Sound Diplomacy said that local governments have leveraged the law to push developers into incorporating live music spaces into their plans.
He pointed to Vicarage Field, a new shopping center in the London district of Barking that will host a music venue.
In Cardiff, Shapiro said, a public outcry last year saved a haven for Welsh-language music called Clwb Ifor Bach.
Developers planned plan to build flats in the live music district, but the City of Cardiff Council eventually purchased the land parcel and leased it to the venue.
“Clwb Ifor Bach is one of the best examples of a direct action that a council has taken,” Shapiro said.