One of Corvallis’ best loved establishments, The Brew Station—where you can get both a coffee AND a draft beer for under $5—will be closing its doors forever on June 14th, much to the chagrin of thousands of loyal fans. Twenty three employees will be laid off, and hearts around town are breaking at the prospect. Loyal patron Kayla calls it: “The only place like it in Corvallis, so for it to be closing down is really a shame.” Candace, who has worked at the Brew Station for two years, is heartbroken: “It’s like my family… they’re breaking up my family.”
The convoluted path to its tragic demise can be traced back, believe it or not, to January 30, 1933—the day Adolph Hitler assumed power in Germany. On that fateful day, a man named Wilhelm Cohnstaedt, who ran a German newspaper, refused to pen an editorial welcoming Hitler. His family was forced to flee the country, scattering across Europe. Wilhelm’s 16 year old son, Martin, was sent to a Quaker school in England.
Martin Cohnstaedt emigrated to the United States four years later. In1941, he refused to fight in WWII, due to his adherence to Quaker teachings of non-violence, and was classified as a Conscientious Objector, which led directly to his being denied American citizenship. Undaunted, Martin argued his case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which granted him the right to citizenship in 1950, in a landmark ruling. Martin lived, by all accounts, an exemplary life, devoted to helping single mothers, blacks and native Americans, and was a staunch environmentalist, as well as an early pioneer promoting organic farming.
Martin had a son, William, with his first wife, Rebecca Boone. William Cohnstaedt is the Brew Station’s landlord. On May 3, 2013, despite having previously agreed—according to his tenants—to modestly increase their rent from $1,854 to $2,000 a month, Cohnstaedt suddenly dropped a bombshell on Brew Station owners Roger and Terry Wylie. With absolutely no warning, he presented them a new lease, demanding $4,642 a month, plus an additional $5,000 of prepaid rent, and a security deposit of $5,000 – although they’d already been tenants for five years!
The new demands were not only outrageous, they were disingenuous. In documents provided to the Corvallis Advocate by Roger Wylie, a 12 page draft lease—which he insists had been verbally agreed to by all parties—clearly designates $2,000 rent for the first year of the three year lease, with CPI chained increases for the following two. The lease Cohnstaedt suddenly presented to the Wylies on May 3, however, is a radically different document. Now 26 pages long, it dramatically alters the previously agreed terms, shifting numerous costs and responsibilities to the tenants.
In an exclusive interview with the Corvallis Advocate, Cohnstaedt insists: “I don’t think there was a disagreement… Roger decided he wanted to retire, and shut down the Brew Station… it was a unilateral decision, I wasn’t consulted about it at all.”
Roger and Terry Wylie, along with their son Alex, the Brew Station’s manager for the past two years, point to the contents of a letter they personally delivered to Cohnstaedt on May 6. They stood in his office while he read it:
“…Typically a commercial landlord collaborates with the tenant to ensure that the businesses that rent from them are successful. It is clear from the proposed terms of the draft lease that you are not interested in our success. This letter serves as formal notice that we will be closing the Brew Station… It is unfortunate that this small business that has grown such a strong reputation in Corvallis and within the OSU community, and has provided incomes for 85 college students over its 5 year existence will now close forever. Because of your actions we will now be laying-off 23 people in Corvallis…”
Despite this, Cohnstaedt insists: “I don’t have any idea why he chose to shut it down. I don’t believe his rent was increased from $1,850 to… whatever the number was [$4,642]… I think we were in the middle of negotiations, and he decided not to go forward, I think that’s what happened…”
Despite feigning ignorance about the rent increase clearly printed in the lease he presented his tenants, Cohnstaedt also defended it: “The way I look at it, is he [Roger Wylie] has over 6,000 square feet exclusively occupied by the Brew Station… I believe that the market rates are substantially higher than $1854. We were negotiating what market [rate rent] was, and what he wanted to pay, and that’s what was going on.”
According to Conhnstaedt’s own lease proposal, the Brew Station occupies 2924 sq. ft. of interior space, 1040 of which is basement. Even factoring in porches and yard—which aren’t viable most of the year—the premises total 4,814 sq. ft.
Roger Wylie, for his part, tried to negotiate. He sent Cohnstaedt an email on May 7, offering to pay $2,500 a month. He says Cohnstaedt simply ignored it.
Their initial lease agreement, signed in 2008, stipulated $1,600 a month rent. Wylie suspects it was so low because he took over a failing business, Bottoms Up Expresso, and there was cautious optimism whether he’d turn a profit. Despite operating for two years without a lease in place (the initial lease expired in May 2011), the Wylies voluntarily began paying more… increasing their rent payments to $1,800 in September 2011, and $1,854 in June 2012.
While similar businesses nearby pay higher per square foot rental rates, Wylie says there’s no comparison. The Brew Station is in a 101 year old building with no heat or air conditioning, no formal kitchen. All their hot food offerings are prepared on panini grills and in convection ovens. Sure, McMenimans pays more in rent, but they’re in a modern building with a full kitchen, heat and air conditioning. Sometimes the historic nature of a century old building enhances value, but in this case, besides the lack of temperature controls and cooking facilities, neither the previous tenant, nor the bookstore which preceded it, were successful there.
Devastated, Wylie says further negotiations are pointless. The only way the Brew Station could stay open, “is if he sold me the building, as I’ve asked him to do.” Cohnstaedt isn’t interested: “The property belongs to me and my family. We’re not interested in selling property, we’re interested in buying property.”
In an exclusive interview, Cohnstaedt’s 92 year old mother, Rebecca Boone, who’s also listed as a landlord on the lease agreements, defends her son’s business practices. When asked about the impact of the Brew Station’s closing on its 23 employees, she responded: “Do you have any idea any of the stuff that’s going on in the world? You just seem to be a horrible bleeding heart…” The rent increase which precipitated the Brew Station’s demise? “It was market value… There are dozens, hundreds of people who would like to have a business on Monroe Street… you have to pay the market rent.”
She used to work as journalist herself, once personally interviewing Eleanor Roosevelt, and says of her son: “Bill’s a lawyer, probably the best lawyer in town, but not everyone’s his friend, too many people have lost cases with him… I know how people feel about him… they think he’s the devil. He doesn’t think that the welfare state has done this country a lot of good, and it has just produced a lot of bleeding hearts like you… the story has no legs, it’s just yellow journalism.”
Asked about the rumor that a Starbucks may move into the space vacated by the Brew Station, she claims: “I don’t have a clue. I know that every [realtor] in town has a string of tenants that want to look at it, and we should give this guy [Roger Wylie] a shake?” She had no comment, however, when asked about the juxtaposition between her son’s disdain for the welfare state and the fact that he was about to be, at least in part, responsible for the loss of nearly two dozen jobs.
Delivering frosty brews to thirsty customers as they bask in the sun, Sadie wistfully refers to her tenure at the Brew Station as: “The best job I’ve ever had… best workers, best staff, best bosses. Coming to work is like heaven on earth… I wish the landlord could see what he’s doing, how many people he’s affecting.”
Lamenting the looming loss of the Brew Station, OSU student Erica reflects on its legacy: “I think it’s a pretty big general meeting place… it brings students together.” Perhaps that explains why over a thousand people have signed the “Save The Brew” petition, which organizers have tried to deliver to Cohnstaedt on numerous occasions, so far to no avail.
Roger Wylie says he could’ve substantially raised prices, but that would alienate customers. “They’d end up hating us… I couldn’t do that.” Ironically, after operating at a net loss the first few years, and only making $11,000 profit last year—to split between him and his wife, neither of whom take a salary—this was the year they finally expected to earn a decent profit. “Then this happens,” he remarks softly, shaking his head.
By Seth Aronson