Could There Be Hope for the Bank-Glutted UWS?

One of the character-stripping branches. (DNAinfo)

One of the character-stripping branches. (DNAinfo)

In recent years, the Upper West Side has been besieged by bank branches, with countless TD Banks and Citibanks, Chase Banks and Banks of America gobbling up once-vibrant street corners, the dull gleam of their ATM screens casting an eerie glow on the empty sidewalks late at night.

There has been hand-wringing, there have been outcries, there is even a zoning ordinance that prohibits banks from having storefronts wider than 25 feet. And unlike the cancerous spread of Duane Reades across every corner of our fair city, which for all their colonial tendencies offer a certain languorous refuge for the stressed city dweller, no one can quite understand what is driving the bank branches’ spread. Aren’t we always told that people are doing more and more banking online? Other than withdrawing cash from the ATM, how often do most of us really visit the bank?

But now there is some good news for bank-beleaguered Upper West Siders: the number of bank branches in the United States is falling and is at the lowest it has been since 2007, according to the Wall Street Journal. Last year, 2,267 branches closed, bringing the number of hopelessly bland, generic outposts to 93,000. Best of all, the number of U.S. bank branches is expected to drop to 80,000 over the next decade, which should put us somewhere close to 2000 levels.

The change, The Journal reports, is a reversal from the wild expansion that was seen over the last three decades, when the number of bank branches doubled. The industry has reduced branches only three times in the last 77 years, when the FDIC started monitoring such changes.

Maybe now the Upper West Side will finally be able to accommodate more of the children’s boutiques and the sad, weird bars that have been longing to move there? Alas, it seems unlikely that the most-missed establishments, the dives and the hardware stores and eclectic, reasonably-priced restaurants will be able to return to the neighborhood. Although a decrease in the number of deep-pocketed national companies eager to sign leases might help some beloved institutions stay—retarding rent increases—it’s not as though the neighborhood would or could revert back to its former self. Broadway is increasingly home to other upscale, dead-souled national retailers and Columbus is blighted by cookie-cutter cafes with book-like wine lists and prices that start at $11 a glass.

And, while the decrease in the number of bank branches is ostensibly connected to the increase in online banking—it now accounts for 53 percent of all banking transactions, compared to 14 percent for in-branch visits, according to the AlixPartners statistics quoted by The Journal, ironically, it’s the more rural, less-connected towns that are losing their banks rather than iphone-cluttered urban centers.

The closures are concentrated in small towns like Athens, Michigan and in the states that were hardest hit by the mortgage crisis—Nevada, Georgia. The kinds of places where communities not only like, but treasure their one bank branch. Athens even sent letters to 20 different banks and threw a pizza party to try to attract a new bank after losing its branch.

Meanwhile, in places like the Upper West Side, despite the high costs of retail space, online savvy and general hostility to them, banks continue to open new branches, at least for now. Last spring—during the time frame when other areas of the country lost more than 2,000 branches, four banks announced plans to open Upper West Side branches within a 20-block radius of one another. And at least now the new branches will be limited to 25-feet on Amsterdam and Columbus Avenues.

kvelsey@observer.com