Planning Commissioner Hisashi Sugaya hasn’t been inside a bank in more than a year, he told his colleagues on Thursday. With online banking and ATMs that accept check deposits, banks have simply made it easier to do everything without ever having to see a human face, he said.
“I don’t understand why banks continue to have branches in neighborhoods when they are pushing everyone not to come into the branches,” Sugaya said.
These and other arguments were heard by commissioners as they considered a proposal to open a branch of First Republic Bank on the corner of 24th and Sanchez streets in Noe Valley. In the end, the commission voted 5-2 to approve the project — it will be the sixth bank branch within five blocks — because they felt it was neighborhood-oriented. This started a conversation about the role of banks in neighborhoods.
It could just be the beginning. Commissioners will likely hear more arguments like this, since the Board of Supervisors has approved an ordinance that requires banks and other financial institutions to seek neighborhood input before opening. Currently banks can open in some neighborhoods, including the Mission, without the community input the city requires when approvals are sought for other so-called “formula retail” businesses, like American Apparel and Starbucks.
The ordinance passed with an 8-3 vote last week. Supervisors Carmen Chu, Sean Elsbernd and Mark Farrell were the dissenting votes.
“It is not a ban, and it gives formula retail financial service institutions a chance to move into areas where there is community support for their presence,” stated a press release from District 1 Supervisor Eric Mar. “It just ensures that financial institutions play by the same rules as all other businesses.”
Supervisor Scott Wiener, who represents Noe Valley, voted in favor even though he doesn’t entirely agree with the legislation because it would make Hayes Valley and North Beach off-limits to banks, since neither of those commercial districts allows formula retail.
“A bank tends to close in the afternoon; when you have too many banks it really undermines the vibrancy of the neighborhood because it becomes dead space for much of the week,” he said.
Wiener said he encourages banks to occupy second-floor spaces instead.
The new First Republic branch will occupy what some residents consider a “cursed” storefront because it has been vacant for more than a year, and some commissioners believe the bank would be a good addition to the neighborhood.
Sugaya argued that storefront businesses like cafés and restaurants create more traffic than a bank would.
“It seems like the whole push for banking must be because Chase is coming in and all these banks,” Sugaya said.
Chase Bank is currently in expansion mode in San Francisco, a spokeswoman told Mission Local last month. In the last two years it has opened two branches and is eyeing one more, on Valencia Street.
The number of opponents and supporters at the Planning Commission hearing was even, with about five speakers from each side. One Noe Valley resident who spoke in opposition said that commercial institutions contribute to the loss of neighborhood character.
One resident said he didn’t have a problem with the San Francisco-based bank, but that he is concerned about retail space going to a commercial entity as opposed to a small business.
“I would like to see Bank of America or Wells Fargo removed from the neighborhood and [First Republic] allowed in that space, because comparatively, they are Harry Potter to Voldemort,” he said. “I am concerned, as the little shops leave the Valley and more and more financial services move in, we lose the neighborhood character and just serve a dollar.”
Commissioner Sugaya agreed.
“By having strict regulations and control, we top the balance in the favor, hopefully, of small businesses,” he said. “Almost every conditional use permit that comes before us has been approved, so I don’t think it should be looked at as obstructionist.”
Commissioner Gwyneth Borden said there is no reason not to support a bank that is community-oriented in a space where many other small business have failed. She also disagreed with Sugaya’s assertions that fewer people go inside banks these days.
“We should not mistake our own banking habits with that of others. I was always shocked, particularly on the weekends on Chestnut Street — my fiancé always goes into the branch and always waits in line,” she said. “At least in the Marina, people use their banks.”
In the end, that is what the legislation attempts to achieve, supporters said — identifying which neighborhoods want banks.
“I think this is a good conversation we are having,” said Commission President Rodney Fong. “It is one of the first of many to come. I think this commission will find its way through this.”