Vault Can Be Vexing for New Owners of Old Bank Branches

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Many a former bank branch has the potential for being a sit-down restaurant--perfect size, plenty of parking, great location. But what to do with the vault?

Those concrete or steel behemoths--unlike teller windows and file cabinets--cannot be simply yanked out and hauled away. And because their walls are typically two to four feet thick, removing them may jeopardize the structural safety of the entire building.

"You're talking a lot of money to remove a vault," said Dallas Dunn, vice president of Ayers Corp. in Fullerton, a specialist in vault removal and maintenance. "You're looking at $25,000 and up."

Newer B of A branches--those 5 years old or less--have portable vaults that can be transferred to other branches, said Dan Costello, executive vice president of corporate real estate at parent BankAmerica Corp. in San Francisco.

"The vault is always a problem," he said. "In most cases, it would cost too much to take them out."

Facing that challenge, buyers of old bank branches can get creative.

The Crab Cooker, a seafood restaurant in Newport Beach that was formerly a B of A office, uses the vault as a refrigerator for fish.

"The walls have three feet of concrete," owner Bob Roubian said. "We've got the world's best chill box. We have precious fish, so we've got to keep it in a vault."

Brokers say that other restaurants have converted bank vaults into wine cellars, liquor cabinets or simply storage areas. Some trendy restaurants have used the vaults as showpieces, Dunn said, and jewelry stores in converted bank sites have used the vaults for their original purpose: to store valuables.

Ayers Corp. has seen its business double since B of A merged with Security Pacific almost a year ago and began selling off branches. So far, Dunn said, much of the work has been transferring safety deposit boxes or automatic teller machines to new branches.

In other cases, the new owner wants the vault door removed. The charge for that service, Dunn said, is between $2,500 and $4,500.

And what does Ayers Corp. do with those 5,000- to 15,000-pound doors? It takes them to the junkyard, Dunn said. "They go back into building Toyotas, I guess," he said.

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