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 become active. City staff members have 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, Minneapolis-based 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 DJR. "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 rethinking 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 tasks ranging 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," Lucie Fernandez, a Bank of America spokeswoman, said 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 more 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.
Bank of America opened a traditional branch in the skyway level of the IDS Center last year 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 Av. 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 the city 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 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.
DJR appealed the decision in April, 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," planning personnel 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, Brad Ellis, the city's manager of zoning administration and enforcement, said in an interview.
"There was some security concerns … 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 appeal to the zoning and planning commission and then to the full City Council. If approved, the branch could open as soon as this fall, Dovolis said.
In the meantime, Dovolis has been trying to drum up community support for the project. He addressed the Downtown Minneapolis Neighborhood Association, which then endorsed the project in a letter.
Joanne Kaufman, executive director of the Warehouse District Business Association, also endorsed the plan, writing in a separate letter that the project will increase activity at the currently vacant storefront and would provide a "much-needed daily service."