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Banks face backlash as they bid for top sites

Joanne Rathe/Globe Staff

A Capital One Bank branch may oust Beacon Hill’s Charles Street Market.

Capital One Bank ousted a women’s clothing shop from its Back Bay space and is trying to force out a popular Beacon Hill convenience store.

TD Bank is replacing a barbecue restaurant in Quincy, took over a bagel shop in Wayland, and could supplant an Irish bar near Faneuil Hall.

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In Wellesley, at least four banks have claimed empty storefronts.

But the new branches have not always been enthusiastically welcomed. The reason: Disappointed residents were hoping for more restaurants and grocery stores instead of additional places to make deposits and withdrawals.

Banks may be important, but to many people they are boring.

“You can hear a collective sigh across town whenever a sign for a new bank branch goes up,’’ said Bob Brown, who has chronicled the Wellesley openings on his blog, The Swellesley Report. The new additions include Brookline Bank, First Republic Bank, First Commons Bank, and Wellesley Bank.

Across the region, financial institutions are gobbling up prime commercial spaces, edging out other merchants and sparking protests from businesses, neighbors, and local officials. Although many banks have been consolidating operations and closing some branches, they still covet high-visibility locations, especially in affluent neighborhoods.

‘The residents feel they’ve already got enough banks in the area.’

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And even banks care about curb appeal. A stone-cold lobby entrance has to work hard to compete with a boutique bakery’s window display or the aroma spilling from a coffee roaster’s door.

Peter Meade, director of the Boston Redevelopment Authority, said banks often fill empty spaces that could otherwise become eyesores. But in some cases, he said, they displace restaurants, shops, and other businesses by offering to pay higher rents.“The biggest problem is that local businesses simply can’t compete with the banks’ money,’’ Meade said. “Banks can come in and bigfoot a place so a local business doesn’t have a chance to compete.’’

Part of the backlash against bank-branch openings may have to do with how they are perceived, especially since the financial crisis. For many people, banks bring to mind foreclosures, taxpayer-funded bailouts, and costly fees.

The resistance has been especially stiff on Beacon Hill.

As many as 1,400 people signed a petition opposing Capital One’s plans to replace a convenience store on Charles Street, and nearly 200 packed a recent public meeting about the proposed opening.

Some complain the bank branch would be dark at night and most of the weekend, sapping energy from the block and making the street feel less safe. Others say they rely on the market for groceries and other items.

“The residents feel they’ve already got enough banks in the area,’’ said Suzanne Besser, executive director of the Beacon Hill Civic Neighborhood Association.

A Zoning Board of Appeals hearing on the bank’s plan is scheduled for Feb. 28.

The space became available after 7-Eleven sold the building to Linear Retail Properties of Burlington for $4.1 million and ended its franchise agreement with the store, since renamed Charles Street Market.

Linear promptly started searching for a higher-paying tenant, but Tracy Hollander, who owns the convenience store, hopes to stay put.

“The store has been part of the fabric of Beacon Hill for 30-plus years,’’ Hollander said. “It would be sad to see it go.’’

The landlord said he was surprised by the fuss. Joel Kadis, the Linear partner handling the building, said he signed a lease with a bank because he thought it would be more agreeable to neighbors than a bar or a restaurant with a liquor license.

“I try to be a responsible landlord,’’ Kadis said. “I don’t see how a bank is detrimental to the neighborhood.’’

Capital One said the new branch would offer jobs and other benefits.

“We have a longstanding history of giving back to the communities in which we operate and pride ourselves on being a good neighbor,’’ said a spokeswoman, Amanda Landers.

Overall, banks eliminated 1 percent of their branches nationwide over the past two years. But banks such as Capital One and TD Bank continue to add locations as they expand into new markets.

“In many ways, they are very similar to billboards,’’ said Ed O’Brien, research director with Mercator Advisory Group, a Maynard banking and payments research firm.

Capital One has signed a half-dozen leases in Boston, Brookline, and Newton and is searching for several more locations to help it break into the Boston market, said Matthew Curtin, a real estate broker for the Dartmouth Co. representing Capital One.

In the Back Bay, Capital One outbid retailer Anthropologie for its multilevel space on Boylston Street. The store has reopened on Newbury Street.

Banks often offer merchants incentives to voluntarily surrender their locations.

Finagle A Bagel, for instance, agreed to close its Wayland store and lease its property to TD Bank. The bakery also made a deal to cut short its lease at 129 Tremont St. in exchange for a payment from Capital One.

Alan Litchman, who owns Finagle with his wife, said the company was already in the process of reducing the number of locations when the banks made them attractive offers. Money aside, Litchman said, “It’s always bittersweet to close a store.’’

Such arrangements do not always work out.

Firefly’s barbecue restaurant chain agreed to give up its lease in Quincy if TD Bank won permission to open a branch on the site. But the permitting took longer than expected. In the meantime, many of Firefly’s patrons stopped going to the restaurant once word leaked out that it would be closing. The Quincy location wound up filing for bankruptcy protection.

“It ended up being a bad deal,’’ said Firefly’s owner, Steve Uliss, who has two other locations west of Boston.

TD Bank still wants to open a new branch in the Quincy location this year and hopes to open 15 branches in the Boston area in the next couple of years. It is also considering leasing a building near Faneuil Hall now occupied by a McDonald’s and the Purple Shamrock bar.

“We are looking for the best locations,’’ said Mark Crandall, regional president for TD Bank. “Visibility in the communities we serve is absolutely critical.’’

Todd Wallack can be reached at twallack@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @twallack.
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