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Banks eye Boylston Street for new branches

Even as lenders close branches, new ones open in prime neighborhoods

Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

Admirals Bank is planning to open its first Boston banking center on Boylston in a couple of weeks.

If you take a stroll down Boylston Street in the Back Bay, you will see new bank branches blossoming like spring flowers.

Admirals Bank is planning to open its first Boston banking center on the street in two weeks. Capital One Bank is taking over the prominent storefront once used by Anthropologie, the women’s clothing store, as part of its plans to expand to Massachusetts. And Bank of America, which already has three locations on Boylston, is in negotiations to fill the space now occupied by jeweler Shreve, Crump & Low.

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Boylston Street has become ground zero as banks battle for market share in prime neighborhoods that have a mix of upscale shoppers, wealthy residents, and professional workers.

Though banks are shrinking their overall number of branches across the country to cut costs, industry executives say they are continuing to maintain or add branches in top locations to attract new customers, especially the affluent. And even though customers increasingly bank electronically, they still look for brick-and-mortar branches when they first open accounts. Also, branches in busy locations serve double duty as virtual billboards, trumpeting the banks to everyone who passes by.

“A prominent branch provides opportunities for banks,’’ said Ed O’Brien, research director with Mercator Advisory Group, a Maynard banking and payments research firm.

“It’s increased visibility on streets like Boylston that provide an anchor’’ for banks to pick up customers and connect them with the bank’s network of ATMs and online services.

Other banking battlegrounds around the region abound, including Beacon Hill and the Financial District in Boston, Harvard Square in Cambridge, and the main streets winding through Wellesley. But Boylston Street has proved particularly attractive to banks looking for visible locations in the heart of Boston.

Bank of America, the state’s largest bank, declined to comment on its plans. But people familiar with the situation say the bank is in negotiations to lease the curved building at 440 Boylston St., now occupied by Shreve, Crump & Low. The jeweler is moving to a nearby location on Newbury Street next month.

The space might be best known as the former home of toy seller FAO Schwartz, and it once had a three-ton bronze bear sculpture parked outside. The 12-foot teddy has since moved to the entrance of the Floating Hospital for Children in Boston.

Meanwhile, Capital One, one of the nation’s largest banks, has secured a half-dozen locations in Boston, Brookline, and Newton - including one on Boylston - as it attempts to break into the Massachusetts market. The branch on Boylston was formerly occupied by Anthropologie, which has since moved to Newbury Street. Capital One is expected to start opening branches in the area as early as 2012, but did not respond to a request for comment.

Admirals Bank, which operates 12 branches mostly in Rhode Island and Southeastern Massachusetts, is opening its first Boston banking center at 579 Boylston St. The space was previously occupied by TD Bank, which moved down the block in 2010.

Admirals chief executive Nicholas W. Lazares said he found the new location by serendipity.

He was walking down the street, near his office in the John Hancock Tower, when he spotted the “For Rent’’ sign. It turned out the building was owned by a good friend of his, and he quickly arranged to meet up and sign a lease.

“It was a bit of luck and fortune,’’ said Lazares, who bought the bank with a group of investors two years ago and moved the headquarters to Boston.

Admirals and Capital One will face plenty of competition from other banks along on the strip. First Republic Bank, a bank that caters to wealthy clientele, opened a branch on Boylston four years ago.

And a host of other financial institutions, including Boston Private Bank & Trust Co., Citibank, Citizens Bank, Fidelity Investments, Sovereign Bank, and People’s United Bank, all have locations nearby on Boylston Street.

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