‘This isn’t the way we do business here’

Cedar Street Bridge merchants facing closures amid ‘chaos’ spurred by ownership change

By Zach Hagadone
Reader Staff

A few months after Florida-based investor Jim Gissy purchased the Cedar Street Bridge in late 2018, it was hailed as “a new golden age” for the iconic retail space over Sand Creek. That renaissance continued — even weathering the COVID-19 pandemic — with the bridge consistently attracting new tenants and patrons. In recent years, it seemed like the Cedar Street Bridge had recaptured its central place in the downtown retail landscape after more than a decade during which it functioned primarily as a picturesque backdrop for photos of the Sandpoint waterfront.

The historic Cedar St. Bridge in Sandpoint. Photo by Ben Olson.

Now, owners of the 24 small businesses located inside the bridge are worried about the future, after L.A.-based 215-219 Larchmont Boulevard LLC purchased the building in May and — according to some merchants — immediately instituted an untenable spike in rents, altered rental agreements to include a raft of new expenses and gave short-term leaseholders the option to either sign five-year agreements at the higher rates or move out by June 30.

“It’s just terrible, honestly,” said Staci Schubert, who has owned and operated Sandpoint Laser Works on the second floor of the bridge for the past four years.

Schubert said she had already been planning to sell her business and, in August, move to Manhattan, where her son has been accepted into an exclusive high school. Because of her pre-existing plans to be out of her space by July 28, Schubert had been on a month-to-month lease. 

Her first communication with the new owners — Claire and Frank Fox, both attorneys with The Law Firm of Fox and Fox in Los Angeles — came in the form of a new lease agreement that raised her rent; required her to pay 4% of property taxes, insurance, trash disposal, common area utilities, building repairs and maintenance; and required her to extend the terms of her lease for five years with further annual increases.

When Schubert wrote back explaining that she had planned to sell her business and leave by the end of July, she said she received a response from Claire Fox on June 15 that a number of other prospective tenants were lined up to take her space, her rent was “substantially below market rate” and she’d have to get out by June 30.

“I’m like, ‘What? I can’t do that,’” Schubert said. “That’s impossible. I couldn’t even physically do it. There’s no way.”

What’s worse, that threw her plans to sell her business into turmoil.

“I don’t even know what would happen if I sold my business. Would she [Claire Fox] even sign a lease with that new person?” Schubert said. “The scariest part for me is selling a business to someone and they’re just doomed for failure because this person is so unpredictable. …

“I don’t know what’s going to happen,” she added. “If I do not sell it, then I will have to liquidate everything I own there. And then put the rest in storage, I guess. And how would I possibly do all of that in 15 days? That’s not reasonable.”

A phone call to 215-219 Larchmont Boulevard LLC at its 217 Cedar St. Apt. 209 address — the same location as the UPS Store — went unanswered. A message left with a representative of The Law Firm of Fox and Fox at its L.A. office on Wilshire Boulevard was not returned by press time.

As previously reported elsewhere, and confirmed by public records, 215-219 Larchmont Boulevard LLC is registered in Delaware with Corporation Trust Company as its agent. Corporation Trust Company is a subsidiary of Netherlands-based Wolters Kluwer, which provides a range of corporate services, from software solutions to accounting and legal to compliance. CTC provides compliance to 1.6 million business entities, acting as registered agent in order for those entities to remain in good standing.

215-219 North Larchmont Blvd. in L.A. is the principal address for the LLC of the same name — as of November 2021 a two-story building housing the Rhodes School of Music; a skin care, waxing and massage salon; Burger Lounge; and unidentified store front. Its mailing address is 4262 Wilshire Blvd., L.A., which is the same address as The Law Firm of Fox and Fox, which lists attorney Frank O. Fox as its registered agent.

According to the Bonner County Assessor’s Office, Frank and Claire Fox executed a quitclaim deed to 215-219 Larchmont Boulevard LLC for the Cedar Street Bridge property on June 2, as well as another quitclaim deed on the same date for the 25,102-square-foot Lot 1 of the Shoong Plaza property east of McGhee Road in Kootenai. Both were recorded on June 7.

The 2022 assessment of the Cedar Street Bridge put its total value at $2,309,419. A sale price is not available, as Idaho is a non-disclosure state.

Meanwhile, the Spokane Journal of Business reported in March 2020 that 215-219 Larchmont Boulevard LLC purchased the 27,900-square-foot Hayden Creek Plaza property “as an investment,” and the company remains the owner, according to the Kootenai County Assessor’s Office.

For Cedar Street Bridge tenants like Schubert, the labyrinthine business structure and inability to communicate directly with the new owners has been a source of anxiety and frustration.

“It was coming toward the end of the month and the new people had not even sent me an email,” she said. “No one communicated with me at all at that point, and I didn’t even know where to send my check.”

Junior Solis has been doing business on the bridge for eight years, formerly with a sushi restaurant and currently as CBD wellness products retailer Bodhi Elements. Like Schubert, he said his first communication with Claire Fox came when he received a new lease with similar terms to Schubert’s, as well as a 20% rent increase. When he emailed Fox and asked to meet, he was likewise told to be out by the end of June.

Meanwhile, “She hasn’t met any of us,” he said. 

According to Schubert, Solis and other bridge tenants the Reader spoke to, the only communication that has occurred so far with the new owners has been in the form of emails — often sent in the middle of the night and frequently with the word “spam” in the subject lines. 

“If you’re going to kick us out, come down and kick us out — don’t do this shady thing of hiding your emails as ‘spam,’” Solis said, adding that the current situation is untenable not only because of the onerous lease terms, but the instability that comes simply from not knowing what the incoming landlords have planned.

“We don’t know what she’s [Claire Fox] planning because she won’t talk to us,” he said.

Taylar Francis and her husband, Tyler, took on the former-Cedar Street Bistro in spring 2020, renaming it Taysty’s Eatery and Wine Bar. Since then, they’ve built a robust clientele and served as a welcoming point of entry immediately inside the front entrance of the bridge.

Now their rent is set to increase 150%.

“There’s no way we can commit to those terms,” Taylar Francis said. “We’re being forced out.”

Francis told the Reader that she’s anticipating a notice to depart on Thursday, June 24, which will hopefully give her and Tyler 30 days to figure out what to do next, but that’s going to be a challenge.

“If we would have known in a timely manner and fashion, we would have had time to find an alternate location,” she said.

As it is, Taylar and Tyler Francis — like their fellow Cedar Street Bridge merchants Schubert and Solis — are left scrambling while simultaneously being left in the dark about what’s going to become of their space.

“I know literally nothing other than they have bigger plans,” she told the Reader on June 22. “Everybody is in jeopardy; that’s the new news today. It’s really sad.”

City Hall has taken notice of the furor surrounding the bridge since Adam Wegman — who owns Stonehouse Jewelry Studio on the bridge — posted a long message June 17 on Facebook that said in part, “The bridge has been sold ‘down the river.’”

The interior of the Cedar St. Bridge in 2019. Photo by Ben Olson.

Sandpoint City Administrator Jennifer Stapleton told the Reader in an email June 22 that she had just been made aware of the issues and concerns from bridge merchants on June 21, and said “we are looking into questions business owners have raised with the city.”

In the meantime, “We are unaware of any future plans for the building,” she added. “We have not been contacted by the new property owner, nor received any building or planning applications. We value our downtown businesses, their owners and families, and are concerned about the rumors.”

Greater Sandpoint Chamber of Commerce President Kate McAlister, who also serves as president of the Sandpoint City Council, told the Reader in a June 22 email that, in her capacity as leader of the chamber, she recently spent time listening to business owners on the bridge about the situation they are facing. 

“To be fair, I haven’t had an opportunity to talk to the new owner of the Cedar Street Bridge. However, I am concerned about all the businesses on the bridge and the fact that some will be losing their livelihood and years of hard work,” she wrote. “How will they support their families now? It isn’t as easy as setting up somewhere else. The bigger question is who has the money to do that and where would they go?”

McAlister underscored that the Cedar Street Bridge has become a vibrant hub of activity downtown over the past five years, representing “a pivotal component to the economic vitality of Sandpoint” — including as a de facto business incubator for many small businesses, which start out on the bridge but later expand into larger spaces elsewhere in the community. 

“I am dismayed, in this instance, that the new owner is not taking into consideration our culture of supporting and lifting up our local business owners,” she wrote. “The Chamber of Commerce’s vision statement is, ‘Succeeding Together,’ and we embrace it completely.”

Putting an even finer point on it, McAlister added: “My heart breaks when I talk to the owners who are being told they need to vacate in 15 days. This is not a good way to do business in our community. The lack of compassion for the small business owners is astounding. In small communities it’s not all about the money — it truly is about ‘Succeeding Together.’”

Following that, McAlister as well as bridge merchants emphasized that “boycotting” the bridge over the situation — as some have suggested online — isn’t going to do anything other than harm tenants. 

“Please don’t do that to the current business owners,” McAlister wrote. “They need our support more than ever — especially if they are being asked to leave. Do any of you have any ideas as to where some of them could relocate? What can we do to help them keep their livelihood and support their families?”

“That’s not the answer,” Schubert said of the suggested boycott. “That’s hurting the businesses, that’s not hurting the owners.” 

The emotional aspect of what’s happening on the bridge hasn’t been lost on any of the merchants there, who again and again return to the close-knit relationships they’ve built among one another over the years.

That community feeling has been badly shaken in both big and small ways in recent weeks — from the shock of the new lease terms to policies like prohibiting dogs on the bridge and the installation of keypad locks on the bathrooms.

“It’s taken decades, but finally you’ve got a thriving community — the ‘bridge family’ — and now it’s just absolute chaos,” Schubert said. “You’re messing with people’s livelihoods and lives. It’s not cool.”

Solis agreed, noting that “the bridge was dead” a dozen or so years ago, but enough people had faith in the downtown landmark to bring it back to life.

“We’ve always loved the bridge. My kids have been playing there for 14 years; they grew up on it. I called them the ‘B-Kids.’ It’s always been a big staple in our family,” he said. “We’ve watched it evolve into this great thing … It’s this vibrant community of local merchants, but now it’s being compromised for financial gain.”

“We are like a little community on the bridge,” said Marsha Lutz, whose rent on her photography studio on the second floor of the bridge is set to increase more than 100% — in addition to the extra expenses required for “community area maintenance.” She has no choice but to close down and move out by the end of the month.

“I just hope Sandpoint doesn’t get rolled over — this isn’t the way we do business here,” she said. “We’re a community and we have to stick together.”

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