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Votes

Take It to the Bank

Six different branches coming at one Oakton intersection.

Linda Byrne lives steps away from a burgeoning financial district in Oakton. The intersection of Chain Bridge and Hunter Mill roads is currently home to three banks, but three more are on the way, clustering financial services within a few hundred yards of each other.

“It’s kind of like when I was growing up,” said Byrne who lives within walking distance of the intersection. “You didn’t have one service station; you had one on each corner.”

Right now, there is a BB&T and a Bank of America, in addition to a Chevy Chase within the nearby Giant grocery store. Chevy Chase is also going through the process to open a bank on the site of what is now Appalachian Outfitters, and has said that it plans to leave the branch in the Giant open.

Wachovia will be opening a branch across Hunter Mill Road from the Chevy Chase site (in what had been a Blockbuster Video) and PNC is set to build a branch on an empty lot just down Chain Bridge Road.

Banks are allowed by right in commercial zones in Fairfax County (although a drive-through requires a special exception), which means there is little to be done from a regulatory standpoint, if the government even wants to.

“I don’t think that the General Assembly has given us authority to regulate the market,” said Supervisor Linda Smyth (D-Providence).

And the market right now is strong. A study last year named Fairfax County as among the wealthiest jurisdictions in America. “The banking business these days is pretty good,” Smyth said.

“You want to go where your customers are,” said Scott Silvestri, a spokesman for Wachovia. There is currently a Wachovia located in an office building at the intersection of Chain Bridge and Jermantown roads. That branch will be closed when the new one opens Silvestri said. “It’s really about making ourselves more convenient for the customer.”

Locating a new branch, Silvestri said, takes into account a number of factors. They should be in high-traffic, high-visibility areas with easy access, and not too close to existing branches. “We need to continue to find ways to make ourselves convenient,” he said.

SMYTH NOTED areas such as Merrifield and the Pan Am shopping center which have clusters of banks. She also pointed out that in Oakton, the commercial area is relatively compact, which might exacerbate the condition. “There’s only so much good frontage,” she said. “Maybe there’s more logic in it than we think.”

Banks, she said, are also changing their business models. In days when increasing number of people use ATMs, direct deposit and online bill payment, banks need more than a teller to remain competitive. “They’re going into lots of different things in terms of financial planning,” Smyth said.

This change necessitates more, highly visible locations in order to draw in customers.

Another factor could be the ever-increasing value of Fairfax County’s land. Both Chevy Chase and PNC have plans to build banks on land valued at more than $1.5 million each. And that’s just for the dirt, not factoring in the added value that a building and business would bring.

Property taxes on a $1.5 million piece of property, under the proposed 2006 tax rate of 93 cents, would come to $13,950 – a large sum for a small business. “The ability for small businesses, as well as homeowners to remain in this county is of concern,” said Tony Howard, spokesperson for the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce.

But the arguments for why it might make sense to have a banking cluster don’t do much for people like Byrne, who wouldn’t mind a bit of variety. “It would be nice to have something we don’t have,” she said.