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NEW YORK CITY-Banks searching for homes are keeping many real estate brokers hopping.

“I’ve never been busier,” says Proctor Wong, director of Newmark New Spectrum’s Bank Services Group, which represents a number of banking concerns. “The banking industry has kept retail real estate afloat single-handedly.”

Wong explains that customers want an alternative to banking “behemoths” Chase and Citibank. “People want to bring their check in and get a face-to-face meeting.” He adds that there is a variety in the size and location of properties the banks are interested in leasing.”They range from Washington Mutual’s Occasio centers that can be from 1,500 to 2,000 sf to Commerce Bank which is interested in 8,000 to 9,000 sf.” He notes that it’s not just a Manhattan trend, that banks are interested in Brooklyn and Queens, which he labeled, “underbanked historically.”

Bob Gibson, executive VP at CB Richard Ellis, notes that banks pay between $125 and $175 per sf. “There has been a window of opportunity for mid-size banks. Landlords would love to have a bank making it more difficult for a non-financial institution. The lesser credit tenants just can’t get the better spaces.”

Gene Spiegelman, senior director at Cushman & Wakefield agrees that the most credit worthy, but issues a cautionary flag. “Banks have created a competitive situation among themselves,” He says the prices the banks pay per sf can’t be compared to a similarly-sized retail establishment because “in certain places if the bank weren’t there, it might remain vacant.”

One of the banks making moves is Fleet National Bank, which will open a 1,300-sf ATM center at Avenue of the Americas and West 55th St, across from the Hilton Hotel, reports W&M Properties, the managing and leasing agent for the retail property. The bank will occupy the facility this spring under a long-term lease, according to Fred C. Posniak, VP of W&M Properties, who negotiated for the property owners. The space is part of a retail condominium owned by a limited partnership led by Peter L. Malkin and Anthony E. Malkin.

“Competition for well located space to accommodate automated banking centers is intensifying, and Fleet has taken one of the choicest sites in midtown,” says Posniak. “It’s a location that offers access to huge customer volume on a seven-day-a-week basis from residential, office and hotel properties, all of which are in direct proximity.” Posniak says a trend toward ATM-only facilities is growing among larger banks and will play an “increasingly significant role in the local retail property market in coming years. It’s a most cost-efficient way for the banks to do business, and enables them to compete more aggressively for the best locations,” he observes.

David LaPierre of Insignia/ESG represented Fleet in the transaction. W&M Properties is the acquisition, management and marketing arm of the Malkin family, which owns commercial and residential properties in eight states. Malkin-led limited partnerships own other retail condominiums in prime Manhattan locations at Union Square, on the East Side and on the Upper East and West Sides.

Faith Hope Consolo, vice chairman for Garrick-Aug Worldwide Ltd sees more regional banks such as North Fork and First Republic making moves into the city and that landlords are pleased. “They bring a current look with a nice glass door. They’re well designed and better lit. And they’re paying an incredible amount for a small space.”

In late January, Wachovia Corp, created through the September 2001 merger of First Union and Wachovia, announced the expansion of its financial center network in Manhattan. Wachovia plans to open 12 financial centers in Manhattan over the next 18 to 24 months.

The first financial centers will open this summer. The timing will coincide with the introduction of the Wachovia brand to the New York, New Jersey and Connecticut markets as part of the First Union/Wachovia merger integration, which creates the largest financial center network on the East Coast.

Under the First Union brand name, Wachovia currently serves customers in suburban New York, New Jersey and Connecticut but does not have financial center locations in New York City’s core. Leases have been signed for financial centers at 49 Rockefeller Plaza and 360 Madison Ave. Six others will be located in about a 100-block area that centers on Rockefeller Center in Midtown Manhattan. From those locations, Wachovia will be able to reach the 500,000 people who work in that area each day. Four more financial centers are planned for other areas of Manhattan.

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