| July-August 2012
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By Tim Innes
Pending Board of Supervisors approval, First Republic Bank will hang its shingle above a storefront at Sanchez and 24th streets that at one time or another has harbored frozen yogurt, cupcakes, gelato, truffles, olive oil, fruit smoothies, and cookwear. Photo by Sally Smith
First Republic Bank's move into Noe Valley cleared a major hurdle June 14, when the San Francisco Planning Commission okayed the bank’s plan to open an office at 24th and Sanchez streets.
Voting 5 to 2, the commission approved a conditional use permit allowing the bank to operate a branch at 3901 24th St., a storefront that has stood vacant since Tuttimelon closed in May 2011. Barring an appeal, the office could be open as early as September, according to a bank spokesman, who added: “First Republic appreciates the opportunity to serve Noe Valley and be even more involved in the community.”
Headquartered in the Financial District, First Republic has 22 offices in the Bay Area, half of them in San Francisco. The bank caters primarily to business customers and high-net-worth individuals, offering private banking and wealth management services. It had assets of $29.6 billion as of March 31.
First Republic would be the sixth bank in “Downtown Noe Valley,” joining Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Chase, Circle, and Sterling in the four-block stretch of 24th between Castro and Church streets. The bank counts some 3,500 customers in Noe Valley, Eureka Valley, and the Inner Mission. A 24th Street branch would occupy about 550 square feet and have three employees.
Not Everybody Happy
The prospect of another financial institution on the commercial strip has dismayed some merchants and community residents, who said they feared that the displacement of too many shops and restaurants would sap the area of its vitality. Others, especially First Republic customers tired of having to leave the neighborhood to conduct business, have welcomed the bank.
Among those opposed is Elizabeth Street resident Peter Gabel, who organized a letter-writing campaign and shepherded a large contingent of Noe Valleyans to the commission meeting.
“Like realtor offices and title insurance establishments, banks are sterile uses that do not add to the community spirit or sense of creativity,” Gabel wrote in one of the 20 letters sent to the commission urging it to deny the request. “They also help to create a lifeless street environment which [discourages] foot traffic.”
That sentiment was echoed by at least six others at the June hearing, some of whom used their three minutes at the microphone to lament the loss of merchants—like Cover to Cover Booksellers, Colorcrane, Star Magic, and Noe Knit—that made Noe Valley unique. Others worried that deep-pocketed businesses like First Republic would push rents even further out of reach for would-be 24th Street entrepreneurs.
Remarks by 27th Street resident Susan McDonough were typical. “Twenty-fourth Street has a great feel to it,” she said. “Noe residents enjoy shopping or browsing along it, [as do] folks from many places. You can hear myriad languages spoken on this pleasant street. With its wide array of specialty shops, restaurants, and bars…you can find virtually anything you need.
“But another bank?” she continued. “We have more than enough banks already. Another bank will not bring more people into the neighborhood. It will not provide a service or product we currently are lacking. It will not be good for our street.”
David Eiland, co-owner of Just for Fun at 3982 24th St., agreed. “We’ve lost too many retailers on the street. I hate seeing more retail go to commercial.”
None of the letter-writers or speakers had unkind words for First Republic. “It’s just that we don’t need another bank,” said 24th Street resident Richard Hildreth, who drew chuckles from the crowd when he likened First Republic to Harry Potter, while its giant competitors—they who must not be named—were like evil Lord Voldemort.
Customers Cite Convenience
Countering for First Republic was Rachel Teksler Woldeselasie, the former manager of the Irving Street branch who now holds a similar position in Burlingame. “If you come into one of our offices, you’ll find that there are no tellers. It’s more like a living room,” where customers can relax, enjoy coffee and fresh cookies, and meet one-on-one with a banker, she said. “Our business is built on personal relationships.”
She said the bank was already involved in the neighborhood, having sponsored the Bouncy House at the June SummerFest and pledged $10,000 to the Town Square campaign, among other local causes.
Also, First Republic customers cheered the proposal. “I think [a branch here] is a great idea,” said Pablo Tisker, manager of Bernstein Realty, which has done business with the bank for more than 15 years. “Right now, we have to drive over to West Portal or Irving Street to do our banking. If they were on 24th Street, we could walk there. And I like to go into a bank where everybody knows your name.”
Others disputed the notion that a bank or other non-retail operation would be bad for business. “On the contrary, it could provide some stability for that cursed corner,” said one neighborhood resident, recalling the parade of businesses—Tuttimelon, Belgano Chocolatier, Stonehouse Olive Oil, Dharma, and Tom & Dave’s Juice-It—that had come and gone over the last 16 years. “This would be good for the community.”
Debate Over Bricks and Mortar
The commission’s affirmative vote followed a lively philosophical discussion that ranged from “How many banks are too many?” to “Do we need any brick-and-mortar banks at all?”
“I’m not sure it’s necessary,” said Commissioner Hisashi Sugaya, who noted that he hadn’t been in a bank for at least a year. “With ATMs and online banking, who needs to go into an office?” he asked. “Why [do] banks continue to have branches in neighborhoods when they are pushing everyone not to come in?”
Countered Commissioner Gwyneth Borden: “Down on Chestnut Street, I see long lines in the banks on Saturdays. People like the interaction. And there are some things you just can’t do over the Internet.”
In the end, the commission decided that six banks were not too many for a mature commercial area like 24th Street. The application was supported by President Rodney Fong, Vice President Cindy Wu, and Commissioners Michael J. Antonini, Ron Miguel, and Borden. Voting against were Sugaya and Commissioner Kathrin Moore, who said she opposed financial and real estate firms occupying corner locations.
“It would be better for small retailers, who can use [displays on] both sides to attract customers,” she said.
Moore’s reasoning struck a chord with some members of the Noe Valley contingent, who suggested that if the neighborhood had to absorb another bank, it should go in the long-vacant Real Food space up the street and let a retailer—a Smitten Ice Cream store, perhaps—set up shop on the corner.
Smitten owner Robyn Goldman acknowledged that her Hayes Valley company had been scouting out the neighborhood and meeting with community leaders. She said that “a Smitten Ice Cream shipping container in the eventual Noe Valley Town Square” might be a possibility.
After the Planning Commission vote, Gabel said he and other opponents were disappointed, but were encouraged by the commission’s thoughtful discussion of the issues. Whether they would appeal to the Board of Supervisors was still undecided as the Voice went to press. They have until July 16 to do so.