I recently moved into a new office. I’m on the second floor of a 3-story building, one of only 2 in downtown Sebastopol (I refer to it as the ‘skyscraper’). From my desk, I generally have a good view of sky, trees and downtown. I also overlook one of the worst uses of land downtown; a bank drive-through. This drive-through was built in the 1972. They only ever use two of the four lanes And while I don’t spend too much time staring out my window, the drive-through does not get used a whole lot. It is also not simply for ATM use. The drive-through is the old-school pneumatic system with a teller in a little booth. Very Retro. (And that’s got to be a boring job. Sitting in a little booth, all day long, with limited human interaction.) The bank is West America, which has a walk-in branch across the street and it’s own parking lot with 24 parking spaces on another lot. This bank takes up a ridiculous amount of land downtown. The total size of all 3 sites is 0.85 acres.

  

There are a total of 6 banks in downtown Sebastopol, and all of them take up land which could be put to a more productive use. These banks were designed as if they were on an arterial road, not in the center of our downtown. They have no recognition of their urban environment. The two located at the center intersection of downtown do have a somewhat urban response in that they are built up to the property line on at least 3 sides, but other than that, they are not very transparent which is important for walkability. Good walkable places need visual interest, and being able to see into commercial spaces in a downtown is a key aspect of providing visual interest.

The bank that takes up the second most amount of land downtown is Wells Fargo (built in 1983). Wells Fargo occupies a total of 0.72 acres, 0.5 acres of that is for parking. There are a total of 29 parking spaces for this bank, in three separate lots, plus a drive-through ATM. I find it hard to believe that all 29 spaces are ever occupied all at the same time. The good news is that Wells Fargo occupies 5 different parcels. They could sell of some of the parcels that are dedicated to parking and allow for a more productive use, like housing, to occupy some of that valuable land.

Close behind Wells Fargo is Bank of America at 0.63 acres (built in 1977) which is in a free-standing building in the same development as Safeway at the north end of town. B of A also has a drive-through ATM and 8 parking spaces on their lot, although they are adjacent to an enormous parking lot which is shared with Safeway.

The remaining 3 downtown banks are all of a similar size; Community First (built 1983) at 0.28 acres, 9 parking spaces, drive-through ATM; Chase (built 2019) at 0.25, no on-site parking but they share a large parking lot with CVS that takes up 1.2 acres, and they have no drive-through; and BMO which occupies 2 parcels for a total of 0.22 acres, and 12 parking spaces and no drive-through. (There is also an Umpqua Bank that I did not include in this analysis as it is a tenant of a larger strip shopping center which includes Whole Foods. This use should probably be the subject of a separate post).

I have nothing against banks per se. We all have need of them from time to time. But in this day and age, how many people actually need to go to a bank? With the pandemic, I really learned to take advantage of online banking, and use my phone to deposit checks and transfer money. Works great. So why do we need to take up so much valuable real estate downtown for this land use, that realistically could be anywhere. And if you are going to be located downtown, you should fit in with a traditional downtown development pattern. Zero front and side property line setbacks, transparency between the sidewalk and interior activities and no on-site parking.

The other issue related to this is the limited financial productivity these uses offer the city. The city collects a portion of the property taxes, but to my knowledge, the city does not receive any other financial benefit from a bank, like sales tax. This will be explored in a future post. Partly because as of writing, the tax collectors online property tax records are not available.

My hope is that these banks can consolidate their footprints and sell off their underutilized surplus land so that it can be put to a more productive use. Our downtown vitality depends on it.