Noe Valley Voice December-January 2009

Circle Bank Squares Up Plans to Open on 24th Street

By Tim Innes

Circle Bank is set to open a Noe Valley branch in March, after remodeling the two 24th Street storefronts formerly occupied by Aveda and Noe Valley Video. Aside from the outdoor ATM, there will be few exterior changes, but the bank plans to offer stroller parking, toys for kids, and a rest area for dogs.
Rendering courtesy Reppenhagen Design, Oakland

Imagine a bank with a play area for kids, parking for strollers, a corner for dogs to curl up in, and doors that stay open seven days a week.

A bank like that could materialize in "downtown" Noe Valley this spring if Circle Bank wins final city approval to convert two empty storefronts just east of Whole Foods into a branch office.

The bank branch, Circle's fifth, would also be the neighborhood's fifth, joining Sterling, Chase, Wells Fargo, and Bank of America in the stretch of 24th Street between Church and Castro streets.

Novato-based Circle, which has four offices in Marin and Sonoma counties, won federal approval in early November to open the San Francisco branch, its first in the city.

Kim Kaselionis, the bank's president and CEO, said half of Circle's loan transactions were already with customers in San Francisco, so it made sense to open a branch on the other side of the bridge. "We feel right at home."

Kaselionis said Circle chose Noe Valley because the neighborhood's demographics are similar to those of the bank's home base and 24th Street has the same "feel" as downtown San Rafael or Petaluma. Circle hopes to open other San Francisco branches as well, she said.

The Noe Valley branch, scheduled to be unveiled in March after a $60,000 remodeling, will be open from 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday and from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

Since Kaselionis took the helm in 1995, the privately held Circle Bank has grown from a shaky institution with one office and $11 million in assets into a regional player with $255 million in assets, $230 million in loans, and $183 million in deposits. Circle Bancorp has reported a profit for 41 straight quarters--something many of its larger competitors can only dream about--and has earned a four-star rating from banking analyst Bauer Financial Inc.

In addition, Kaselionis said Circle was among just a handful of institutions in California that accepted IOUs during the state's fiscal crisis this summer.

The bank, which specializes in small-business, multifamily-housing, and TIC (tenants-in-common) lending, has signed a 10-year lease for the 2,331 square feet of space at 3936-38 24th Street, once filled by Noe Valley Video and Aveda skin care. An adjacent storefront, formerly occupied by nutritional supplement purveyor GNC, remains vacant.

Circle Bank plans to knock down the wall that separated Noe Valley Video and Aveda, open up the space, and paint a large mural inside depicting iconic San Francisco scenes.

Landlord Joe Cassidy said he was delighted to have found a tenant for the two empty storefronts. "There are a lot of vacant stores on this block," he said, noting the long-shuttered Real Food Company and Streetlight Records space across the street from his building. He said based on visits to Circle's two Marin branches, he thinks the bank will be a fine addition to the neighborhood.

"They're extremely friendly and welcoming to families," he said, crediting Kaselionis, the mother of three teenagers.

Before it can move in, Circle Bank must obtain a conditional use permit to convert the space from retail to financial services--a requirement, set forth in Section 728 of the city planning code, that's designed to preserve the character of the 24th Street business district. The Planning Department staff has recommended approval of the bank's request, which was set to be heard by the Planning Commission in early December.

The neighborhood's two main civic groups have both taken neutral positions on the bank's proposal.

Richard May, president of Friends of Noe Valley, said his group supports "more options for residents as long as they are in keeping with the character and needs of the neighborhood. Certainly, empty retail space helps no one."

Robert Roddick, president of the Noe Valley Merchants and Professionals Association, said that while the NVMPA has not taken a position on the Circle Bank proposal, he believed Cassidy was going back on a 1998 pledge he made to the association to maintain four small retail spaces in the building and he might take the landlord to court.

Countered Cassidy: "I have no choice. Demand for retail space just isn't there.''

Gwen Sanderson, proprietor of Video Wave on Castro Street and the NVMPA's past president, said many merchants are relieved that a large chain store isn't coming to 24th Street, but she wonders if Noe Valley "really needs another bank."

Circle's Kaselionis replies: Hers is not just another bank, but one with local ties and a "dedication to making business as convenient and friendly as possible."

Besides, though other banks may offer free coffee and cookies, how many have a KidZone stocked with coloring books and Legos, or a kennel with bowls of water and doggie treats?

Right after press time, the Voice learned that Circle Bank was granted its conditional use permit at the Dec. 3 meeting of the San Francisco Planning Commission.