Out of the Blue: Chase away Chase, too many banks

OK, so what's the story on the sudden surge of banks in our town?

Big, hairy ones. The ones we bailed out after they caused the crash and who thanked us by collectively growing 30% bigger and gobbling up the weak.

Four new banks have come to town — U.S., Union and two from Chase — for a 133% increase to seven.

Did I miss something? Did our economy double since 2008? Are we opening up more canyons to build on? Putting in a harbor? Couldn't we have more of something moral and decent like parklets, lounges and pot dispensaries?

Take JP Morgan Chase for instance, the largest U.S. bank by assets and the newly crowned prince in town, with not one but two conveniently gleaming branches serving downtown and South Laguna, because one shouldn't have to drive more than a mile to bank in Laguna.

First a branch displaced our beloved hometown pizza hero Sid Faranoff's Z Pizza by offering more rent. Shame on you, pushing the little guy out. The community was rightly outraged, and the landlord expeditiously found another space for Sid where Z belongs — next to a yoga studio.

Now Chase just opened a gleaming downtown location on Broadway Street. We don't need a Village Entrance now. We've got it.

At night, when you come around the bend on Broadway after the lovely Festival of Arts, it greets you in a Vegas chapel kind of way, and says, "Come get your money, cause you're gonna need it." Not a bad message, actually.

Furthermore, the new Chase bank moved into what had been an office. Retail banking depends on a steady flow of traffic, so now a place that didn't generate much activity under its former uses will bring more needless congestion.

People have spoken up about the bank's rather garish lighting and wondered how it could be permitted under our codes.

Nonetheless the planners approved the use, rationalizing that it's mainly for residents and serves the downtown community.

Funny, I don't recall anyone ever saying, "Gee, you know what we need more of downtown? Banks. Can't get enough! And they so add to our village character!"

And how exactly do we benefit with five banks downtown when we existed so long with just two?

I'll admit the corporations behind our longtime banks Bank of America and Wells Fargo are no avatars of goodness, but by now they are our community banks and we know and like their employees. But I'm especially angry that Chase is our downtown beacon, especially since we disdain chain stores that dilute our uniqueness.

Chase is the third-largest public company in the world. Ubiquitous on every commercial strip in every town. I know when I see one I am overcome with a sense of familiarity, a serotonin hit, and that sense that everything will be all right.

Why am I singling out Chase? Let's review the list.

Since 2002, Chase has been convicted of securities fraud with Enron, abetting the WorldCom bond collapse, nearly bankrupting a county (Jefferson, Ala.), and violating client money rules in the United Kingdom. It's been accused of or involved in Truth in Lending Act litigation, manipulation of the energy market, obstruction of justice, violating sanctions programs and even hiring children of the Chinese ruling elite in order to score state-owned deals.

Wait, we're not done.

In November 2012, Chase paid its biggest fine yet, $13 billion to resolve investigations into its sale of mortgage-backed securities. Then it was announced that it would pay $2.6 billion for failing to report the significant internal suspicions it had of Bernie Madoff's treachery.

Chase paid $23 billion in penalties that year. But the worst may have been when it overcharged military personnel on their mortgages. How patriotic.

You wonder why nobody from banking goes to jail when an underprivileged man can still be sent away for a nickel bag. Chief executive Jamie Dimon got his hand slapped in 2012, getting cut down to a mere $13 million, the ultimate country club snub. But don't cry for Jamie, Argentina. He's back at his pre-devastation level of $20-plus million in compensation because Chase had another banner year in 2013 with $100 billion in revenues.

Yep. Chase is back.

Of all the banks downtown, none are community or locally owned. Please, no more. We're well beyond saturation, and none of them are so distinctly unique as to warrant exception from the Downtown Specific Plan's pledge of diversity of use.

It's one more blight on our downtown historic character that somehow slipped by us.

Now when I enter our version of the Great White Way, our very own Broadway, I'll feel so cheap and dirty that I may just switch to Bitcoins.

BILLY FRIED is the chief paddling officer of La Vida Laguna and member of the board of Transition Laguna. He can be reached at billy@lavidalaguna.com.

[For the record, 3:20 p.m. March 14: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the new U.S. Bank moved into the former Dean Witter space. Re/Max Evolution moved into the former Dean Witters space at 302 Glenneyre St. more than a year ago. U.S. Bank moved to the former site of the Fidelity Federal Bank at 310 Glenneyre St.]

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