In storefronts, strip malls and even parking garages, many of the branches are as visually generic as cell phone outlets, convenience stores or fast-food restaurants. Indeed, the new mini-banks -- let's call them McBanks -- are the early 21st Century's answer to the fast-food restaurants of the late 20th Century: loved for their convenience, loathed for their cookie-cutter McArchitecture.
One might reasonably ask of these small-scale operations: "Why should they offer anything more?" But a better question would be: "Why not?" Today, everything from Apple Computer stores to Chipotle Mexican Grill outlets are feeding our appetite for retail and restaurant design that adds distinctive flavor to the public spaces of cities and suburbs.
Instead of raising aesthetic standards, however, the new banks are raising blood pressure, not simply because they look so bland, but because they have pushed out corner drugstores and other retailers that make neighborhoods livable. They also are drawing fire because they don't generate sales tax revenue, as stores do.
As a result, Chicago and a growing number of suburbs -- among them Buffalo Grove, Highland Park, Hinsdale and Lake Forest -- have passed measures to curb the rising number of branch banks. Lake Forest has gone a step further, tightly regulating how banks should look and even pushing them to offer plans that would allow them to be changed into stores if a bank closes.
Bankers and their design consultants take a different view. They are giving customers what they want, they say--a convenient combination of online, ATM, telephone and in-person banking. Invariably, they use the word "intimidating" to describe the old banks, saying that they were as cold and impersonal as Department of Motor Vehicle branches.
In pointed contrast, the new banks fall all over themselves to glad-hand you. Teller lines and roped-off areas are out. The new banks offer such welcoming touches as conciergelike greeter desks, coffee bars, kids' play spaces, comfy couches, even tellers and managers who dress in the unpriestly garb of "business casual" -- khakis, colored shirts and no ties. Banks from Sarasota, Fla., to San Jose, Calif., now share branches with Starbucks, hoping to attract customers from the popular coffee shop.
"A scone with your loan?" the trade journal, American Banker, quipped in a recent story.
While these amenities undoubtedly appeal to customers, they don't address the one thing that the branch bank boom hasn't altered: Banks, like all buildings, still have the capacity to add to -- or detract from -- the character of cities and suburbs. And that raises some vexing questions: Is it possible for a bank to be approachable and functional without being dumbed down architecturally? Can the new banks add to the character of cities and suburbs -- or will they continue to drown it in architectural red ink?
Banking has long gone hand in hand with real places, not the intangible, faceless universe of the World Wide Web.
The word "bank" derives from the Italian "banco," which means "bench." In the 13th Century, when modern banking developed in Italy, Italian bankers did business on benches in the street.
As computer use boomed in the 1990s, it appeared that banks were ready to sever their historic ties with human interaction. They invested heavily in online operations and sliced spending on new buildings. Actual banks appeared ready to disappear into the ether of the Internet.
But a funny thing happened on the way to a placeless banking universe: Plenty of customers still wanted to look into the eyes of a banker. And banks discovered that branches provided them the perfect platform to sell customers not just checking accounts, but insurance and other financial services that used to be off-limits because of federal regulations dating back to the Depression.
As a result, the number of branch banks around the country has steadily increased to more than 80,000, according to the American Bankers Association, a Washington, D.C.-based trade group. While 36 million U.S. households banked online in 2004, a nearly fivefold increase from 1998, more than 9 of every 10 households still visits a branch bank once a month, according to Tracey Mills, a spokeswoman for the trade group.
Chicago is the epicenter of the branch-banking boom, largely because old Illinois laws that restricted the spread of branch banking have been relaxed. Bank One, for example, added 60 branches last year, giving it 310 branches in the six-county Chicago area and northwest Indiana. Upstart Washington Mutual, based in Seattle, claims 150 in the region.
Yet as a close look at the Washington Mutual branches shows, the new face-to-face banking is entirely different from the old bank temples.
The only thing remotely Greek or Roman about a Washington Mutual branch is the bank's code name for the design --"Occasio," which is Latin for "favorable opportunity."