A Bank on Every Corner?

Strolling along Fifth or Madison or Park – or just about any key Avenue in Midtown – it is apparent that every financial institution in the world seeks to locate on as many strategic and visible corners as possible (from Habib American Bank to Wells Fargo; from HSBC – which is the Hong Kong Shanghai Banking Corporation – to Citibank).  From financial behemoths to minor players in the money markets, these banks want you to see them and use their ATMs.  They occupy major intersections and large areas on the ground floors of important buildings.  They want your money and they want to be seen.

Is this is a good thing?   Should the proliferation of banking operations be halted?  Are these retail uses – like stores and restaurants?  Do they serve the public – and are they key uses which should be encouraged?  Or, are they unappealing dead spaces which disrupt vital commercial corridors which should instead be predominately characterized by pedestrian-oriented, visually appealing uses?  Is Madison Avenue harmed because the Bank of China and the Bank of America are competing for your business?  Or, are ATMs and bank services vital to New Yorkers and tourists alike?

As it turns out, zoning does address the issue.  And, depending on your point of view (and whether you’re looking for your favorite bank branch or not), it either solves the problem or creates another:  For significant portions of Fifth Avenue and Madison Avenue, banks are allowed, but limited in size and frontage.  It is not possible for a new bank to occupy large swaths of space along Fifth from roughly 40th Street to 60th Street; similarly Madison cannot accommodate a sizeable financial establishment from the 50s to the 80s.  Indeed, these areas contain special use restrictions which are designed to protect retailers from the disruptions in the continuity of the storefronts along the street.  Older banks (built or leased before the rules were adopted in the ’70’s) – and there are many – are permitted to maintain their frontages.

What’s wrong with banks?  And, what’s so special about 5th and Madison?

Banks are not truly retail uses.  They are not stores and they do not have displays which entice and draw.  They do not sell products and tend to create a sense of disruption along a streetscape otherwise full of shops and boutiques.  And, some think that they are just too big.  For these reasons, ZONE is aware that some City Planners are contemplating limiting these uses in other prominent locations – even in the Other Boroughs.

But, is it accurate to suggest that Banks are barren and unfriendly?  Arguably, the banks of old (pre-ATM era) were not pedestrian friendly.  Seems almost quaint to think of it, but they had “banker’s hours” and you needed to see a teller (and wait in line) to do any business at all.  These may have been grand edifices (e.g. Dime Savings Bank), but they weren’t pedestrian-oriented or inviting.  Today, banks are key components of the pedestrian experience and vital to the ebb and flow of the sidewalk – as customers (New Yorkers and tourists) seek out ATMs for their bank to do all manner of business.  Is it time to re-think the restrictions?

image via www.visit5thavenue.com