Downtown View : The Welcome Mat Is Yanked for Banks

July 11, 2014
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What’s so bad about a bank? They seem pretty benign.

Then why do ten Boston neighborhood shopping districts, including those in the North End and Charlestown, make them or  any professional office a conditional or forbidden use on the first or basement floors?

Why did the Boston City Council recently vote to make banks and other offices a conditional use on Charles and  Cambridge streets, adding Beacon Hill’s commercial streets to the other ten districts?

So banks and offices won’t further deaden the blocks they are on.

Banks and professional offices deaden their environments in two ways. First, they create long blank walls. Take a look along Cambridge Street where TD Bank and People’s United have taken up large spaces with blank windows and no customers. For an even worse situation, take a gander over to Central Square in Cambridge where several banks make the area look abandoned.

Banks and professional offices deaden environments in a more stealthy way too. They are rich renters. They can afford to pay a lot more than a small retailer. No wonder landlords like them.

But they kill the goose that laid the golden egg. As landlords fill their spaces with banks and offices on the ground floors, shoppers gradually leave to do their business elsewhere and the small shops that keep trying to succeed after the banks move in finally disappear.

A good example of the deadening effect of an office was at the Charles Circle end of Charles Street. For years a law office, with its blinds drawn, occupied a long space in the large garage building. A couple of years ago the law offices moved out and JP Licks moved in. Now the block is lively, even in winter, when you’d think ice cream would be less desirable.

Tiny Beacon Hill, about ¼ mile on each side, now has six banks, up from three only about three years ago.

The new banks probably attract a few customers chasing miniscule increases in CD rates. They’ll attract a few students and young working people who live nearby. But the big moneybags on Beacon Hill aren’t going to change their banking habits.

The conditional use applied to offices is not a completely done deal—the BRA and the Zoning Commission still must approve it, but that looks promising. Josh Zakim, the district’s new and young city councilor, kept a close eye on the initiative and probably gained some seasoning in doing so. The only question left on this matter is why did it take Beacon Hill so long to get the protection other neighborhood centers have already had?

Questions on another zoning matter were addressed by the city council too. For some reason, art galleries are not an allowed use in some areas of the city, including the Back Bay. You would think that art galleries are just what you’d want in a commercial district, pulling in customers and adding to the mix of retail. This strange situation was pulled into the limelight when the Pucker Gallery in the Back Bay, which has dozens of art galleries, many on the ground floor, tried to move and was denied permission. That matter has been resolved, but the city council decided it needed to look more widely at what are and are not allowed uses throughout neighborhood centers in Boston. Zakim and City Councilor Ayanna Pressley were behind this effort.

Who knows what will result from this exploration, but one would hope that the zoning code will better reflect uses that enhance communities, street vitality and appeal.

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