Residents Fear Bank Boom Is Leaving D.C. None the Richer

By Paul Schwartzman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 15, 2007

The residents were sorry when the duplex movie theater closed, but they saw a silver lining. Maybe a new cafe would open, or a Vietnamese restaurant, or even a bookstore.

So what's coming to Tenleytown in Northwest Washington and angering neighbors?

Not a liquor store or a nightclub, the usual sources of any community's agita, but a veritable pillar of the economy, one that is commandeering storefronts across the city: a bank branch.

Not unlike the seven branches already open within a half-mile of the Outer Circle theater's former site on Wisconsin Avenue.

"It contributes nothing to the community," resident Jonathan Bender said, grousing about Commerce Bank's plan to open where he once watched foreign films. "We already have tons of banks. It replaces one of our last vestiges of funkiness."

District officials initiated a campaign this year to lure A-list retail to Washington, places that would keep residents from trekking to the suburbs to splurge. But their vision of a shopper's paradise is running headlong into a reality that has emerged at cosmopolitan corners across the country: a proliferation of bank branches.

Since 2002, as banks have waged fierce competition for customers, the number of branches in the District has jumped nearly 20 percent, from 193 to 230, according to federal data. Nationally, the number of branches climbed 13 percent.

Most District branches have opened downtown and in well-to-do neighborhoods, occupying prime storefronts.

On K Street NW, 22 branches operate between 11th and 21st streets, including 10 that have opened since 2001. SunTrust and Chevy Chase Bank are among the branches dominating most corners of Farragut Square. And on Connecticut Avenue NW, 13 banks have offices along and adjoining the six-block stretch between Dupont Circle and K Street.

The branch boom has prompted District officials to mull ways to control the growth, a strategy at work in Chicago, where branches have increased by 50 percent since 2002, and New York, where Manhattan has experienced a 41 percent rise.

"It's not just the number of banks. The bigger issue is the prominence of their location," said Harriet Tregoning, director of the District's Office of Planning. "Some amount is a good thing, but an enormous amount is too much of a good thing."

In the 1990s, a period of mergers in the financial industry, many banks promoted online services and closed branches. But industry studies showed that customers wanted personal contact when managing their money, and banks began opening more branches in a surge fueled by new players such as Commerce, which models itself as a retail store.

Branches are popping up with greater frequency in residential neighborhoods. On Connecticut Avenue several blocks north of the three banks at Dupont Circle, the former home of a restaurant, video store and magazine shop is another Commerce branch.

"Love Your Bank at Last," reads the sign near the entrance, where a concierge greets customers and a player piano tinkles in the background.

In Adams Morgan, Wachovia is taking over space once occupied by shops that sold electronics and antiques. The neighborhood's crossroads already offers five banks. "We're becoming a neighborhood of bars and banks," said Brian Weaver, an advisory neighborhood commissioner.

Douglas Jemal, the developer who bought the building where Wachovia will open, said he had hoped to rent to a high-end clothing store, but the company told him that Adams Morgan does not generate enough daytime shoppers. "I looked long and hard. I'm not pro-bank," Jemal said. "The economics worked."

Although a preponderance of the new branches have opened in Northwest, banks are also adding offices east of the Anacostia River. A SunTrust branch has opened, and a Wachovia is on the way in Congress Heights, where residents have had to travel more than a mile to find a bank.

"We want more businesses, we want more stable businesses, and banks certainly do represent that," said Yavocka Young, executive director of Main Streets Anacostia, which lobbies for economic development.

Banks choose densely populated neighborhoods where they can lure customers. New branches generate fees, market CDs and loans, and build up the bank's name. "In New York, you have these huge branches that are a block long, and you walk by and won't see more than three customers," said Kevin Fitzimmons, a banking analyst. "But it's advertising. Your customer may come in once every five years. It gives them comfort to know it's there."

Chevy Chase has opened eight branches in the District since 2001, the most of any bank. Alexander Boyle, Chevy Chase's vice chairman, said the expansion reflects the District's "growth and expansion" and a need to keep up with the demands of customers commuting from the suburbs.

Banks have also opened more branches in Maryland and Virginia, increasing by 21 percent in Fairfax County and 9 percent in Montgomery County.

The rise in branches has prompted some cities to devise controls. A Chicago alderman became so alarmed by the proliferation that she drafted a law requiring that banks obtain permits to open within 600 feet of one another.

"We had them in every block," said the alderman, Vi Daley. "They were destroying my streets."

Tregoning, whose office oversees development in the District, said the city could rewrite zoning laws "so we don't have banks on every corner." Or, she said, the government could provide tax relief to property owners so they could lease space at below-market rents.

John Asadorian, a commercial real estate broker, said many retailers gravitate to the suburbs because that's where they find masses of shoppers. "There are a lot of banks, but it's not at the expense of retail," he said.

In Columbia Heights, the center of a development boom, residents lobbied for more banks. Until recently, their only branch was a Riggs, now PNC, on 14th Street NW. Now they have Citibank and Wachovia, a BB&T is opening, and a developer is negotiating to bring a Bank of America, all within several blocks.

"We needed banks. It's a welcome improvement," resident William Jordan said. "I just don't know if we need five of them."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company