Bank of America wants to open virtual branch in North Loop but faces city opposition
Photo: Bank of America wants to open a branch with no tellers on site in Minneapolis, but is running into opposition from the city. This is the “advanced center” in Charlotte, N.C. (Photo provided by Bank of America)
Bank of America wants to open an unstaffed branch but city staff advise against branch saying it’s just an ATM.
Bank of America wants to open a new branch in the North Loop — but without bank tellers on site. Instead, customers would speak to a teller via video.
The Minneapolis location would be one of just a handful of automated branches Bank of America has set up across the country, yet it may never actually open. City staff has determined that the branch is nothing more than a cluster of ATMs, which are not allowed in Minneapolis.
While the city has stuck to its interpretation, DJR Architecture, which has worked on behalf of the bank on the proposed virtual branch, will push again at the June 8 meeting of the zoning and planning committee to appeal the decision.
“The ordinance is not written to allow this evolution in retail,” said Dean Dovolis, principal at Minneapolis-based DJR Architecture. “Banking is just one example of this trend. You think of gas stations, they’re unmanned. And you think of 24 Hour Fitness, they have a key card, but they are unmanned.”
Charlotte, N.C.-based Bank of America is reimagining how it creates branches. Just recently, the bank started to pilot advanced centers, which are automated branches that allow customers to communicate with bank staff via video conferencing for a range of different tasks from securing a mortgage and planning for retirement to obtaining a car loan.
“We’re also learning there is no one-size-bank-fits-all anymore, and we’re continuing to innovate on the financial center model to meet the evolving needs of our clients,” said Lucie Fernandez, a Bank of America spokeswoman, in a statement to the Star Tribune.
Currently, the bank has only a few advanced centers — two in Denver, one in Eagan and another in Charlotte. The bank plans to open 25 additional advanced centers across the country by the end of the year, Fernandez said. Over the next few years, it hopes to open more than 250 new centers and also renovate the existing branches and ATMs with new technology.
Last year, Bank of America opened a traditional branch in the skyway level of the IDS Center in downtown that also has teller-assisted ATMs where customers can video conference with tellers.
The advanced center Bank of America wants to open at 121 Washington Ave. N. near the new Bonobos men’s retailer would include three traditional ATMs, two remote virtual service rooms, a lobby with a video concierge and storage space. The private virtual service rooms would have computer terminals to allow customers to privately communicate via video and audio with banking staff off-site.
Last December, DJR contacted the Minneapolis zoning office about opening the branch, but it was informed that Minneapolis doesn’t allow standalone ATM lobbies. According to city ordinance: “Automatic teller machines shall be allowed only as an accessory use.”
With that knowledge, DJR and Bank of America revised their initial plan to include “remote virtual services.”
Since the concept of the advanced center doesn’t squarely fit into the zoning categories, the zoning administrator was asked to weigh in. In March, the administrator said the office would be considered an ATM and ruled against the project.
In April, DJR appealed the decision, but the city’s department of community planning and economic development advised the zoning board of adjustment to deny the appeal, which it did.
“Customers entering and leaving the use with cash are put in vulnerable positions without the crime deterrence offered by an active, staffed use,” staff said, according to city documents. “By contrast, a traditional retail banking establishment provides a more active use, as well as ‘eyes on the street’ that can both discourage and respond to crime.”
Most of the reasoning behind the introduction of the ordinance was because people were concerned about crime, said Brad Ellis, the city’s manager of zoning administration and enforcement, in an interview.
“There was some security concerns I think when that was originally implemented when we were first grappling with ATMs,” he said. “They were worried about crime people waiting behind and mugging somebody after getting cash.”
DJR’s next step is to try to appeal to the zoning and planning commission and then it goes to the full City Council. If approved, the branch could open as soon as the fall, Dovolis said.
In the meantime, Dovolis has been trying to drum up community support for the project. Earlier this month, he presented in front of the Downtown Minneapolis Neighborhood Association. The association voiced its support of the project at that location in a letter. In another letter, Joanne Kaufman, executive director of the Warehouse District Business Association, gave the association’s support saying it will increase activity at the currently vacant storefront and provided a “much-needed daily service.”