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Mega Banks Stripping UWS of Neighborhood Character, Locals Say

By Leslie Albrecht

DNAinfo Reporter/Producer

UPPER WEST SIDE — Upper West Siders say they've got a plan to help save their neighborhood's character and charm: smaller banks.

Community Board 7 Chairman Mel Wymore and City Councilwoman Gale Brewer are backing proposed zoning rules that would limit the amount of streetfront space that banks could use along Broadway, Columbus and Amsterdam avenues.

They say too many once-lively blocks have been gobbled up by banks that take over several storefronts and deaden the streetscape. Banks — with limited hours and little foot traffic — rob streets of the "thriving hustle and bustle that's so great about New York City," said Wymore.

"When you walk along the side of a large bank it's like walking along a large billboard with a door at the end for an ATM," Wymore said. "It's 70 feet of signage with nothing that appeals to the eye. It's just a big advertisement for the bank."

Under the propsoed zoning rules — which would require City Council approval — banks wouldn't be allowed to take up more than 25 feet of streetfront space.

Upper West Siders asked the Department of City Planning to come up with the new rules a few years ago, as more and more national chains replaced smaller, locally-owned businesses.

The impending closure of H&H Bagels on Broadway and West 80th Street — and the fear that a chain store will replace it — has made Upper West Siders even more nervous that their neighborhood is becoming a giant mall, Wymore said.

"There's a real sense of urgency around this on the Upper West Side," Wymore said. "We want to do something that will protect local, small businesses."

City planners spent three years studying the Upper West Side's streetscape, then came up with a list of recommendations on how to preserve the neighborhood's vibrancy, said city planner Laura Smith at Community Board 7 meeting this week where the proposed regulations were unveiled.

Planners found that a typical block on Columbus or Amsterdam avenue has an "active mix" of retail and other establishments, with about seven stores between 20 and 40 feet wide, Smith said.

On Broadway, planners noticed a "definite proliferation" of banks, with 26 banks or financial institutions in one 20-block stretch, Smith said.

The new rules aren't supposed to ban banks entirely; the idea is to get them to move their activity to the second floor so they don't take up so much ground-floor space, Smith said.

Planners also recommend requiring that a certain amount of storefront space — on all businesses, not just banks — remain transparent windows that pedestrians can look into.

Another proposed rule would limit storefront sizes on Columbus and Amsterdam, requiring two businesses per 50 feet, with no establishment taking up more than 40 feet. Exceptions would be made for supermarkets, churches and other establishments.

The new set of zoning regulations would require months of public review, followed by city council approval.

Councilwoman Brewer, a staunch advocate of mom and pop stores, asked planners to move as fast as possible at this week's meeting. "You have to hurry up, because otherwise there will be nothing left," Brewer said.