Most financial institutions looking to open in San Francisco’s gay Castro district can usually bank on facing opposition. Many residents and merchants say the neighborhood is already saturated with enough banks that create dead zones throughout the commercial corridor.
Umpqua Bank officials are finding this maxim to be true as they seek approval to open a Castro branch in the 18th Street storefront that now houses Magnet, the gay men’s health clinic, which is slated to relocate this summer to a new location around the corner on the 400 block of Castro Street.
As the Bay Area Reporter noted on its blog last November, the bank intends to reskin the 18th Street building, which is adjacent to a city parking lot, and upgrade the facade and entrance way. It also is proposing to work with the community to install a mural on the side of the structure fronting the parking lot entrance and possibly install a new structure for local organizations to post their posters.
To help activate the space during daytime hours, the bank has said it will welcome anyone who wants to use its lobby – with free coffee and Wi-Fi – as an office space to hold one-on-one meetings. It will feature works by local artists, highlight local merchants, and be available for community groups to use for events.
The bank is also looking to lease the second floor, which is not wheelchair accessible, to a Castro group in need of office space.
“This space is designed to welcome after hours community use of our space,” Lindsey Strange, Umpqua’s senior vice president – retail regional director for the Bay Area, told members of the Castro Merchants association at its meeting this morning (Thursday, April 2). “We will do that free of charge.”
Strange had hoped to win the business group’s support as the Portland, Oregon-based company seeks the required permits from the city’s planning commission. Yet the merchants overwhelmingly voted to oppose Umpqua’s conditional use permit request.
“We would be making a terrible mistake allowing a bank there,” said Terry Asten Bennett, whose family owns Cliff’s Variety.
Steve Adams, a regional senior vice president with Sterling Bank and Trust, said he would have no problem seeing Umpqua open on upper Market Street where his bank has a branch. Unlike with the 400 and 500 blocks of Castro Street, where there are a number of banks, the upper Market Street corridor has only a few banks.
“I am not against Umpqua coming into this neighborhood. It is the location,” said Adams, who serves on the San Francisco Small Business Commission. “There is all this empty space on upper Market. They need another bank up there.”
Andrea Aiello, executive director of the Castro / Upper Market Community Benefits District, announced at the meeting that the CBD’s board also voted to oppose Umpqua’s planned expansion in the Castro.
“We are doing this Castro retail strategy study and we are not finding anything that suggests we need another bank,” she said. “Banks are not driving foot traffic anymore because many people bank at home.”
One group that has voted to support Umpqua is the Castro / Eureka Valley Neighborhood Association, though its vote was not without “a lot of internal conflict,” remarked board member Mark McHale.
Strange said Umpqua looks at “where are people meeting” in a particular neighborhood when it determines branch locations. The company ruled out seeking a space on Castro Street but felt the soon-to-be-vacant storefront at 4122 18th Street would be a suitable fit.
“We feel our model does well in the heart of a neighborhood,” she said.
The bank’s hearing date before the planning commission has yet to be noticed.