As president of the Great Falls Business and Professional Association, local business owner Ralph Lazaro can sympathize with the desire to make money. However, as a resident of Great Falls, he also knows the importance of being a good neighbor. That is why he is not a fan of the Commerce Bank design proposed for Walker Road.
"If you want to be a good neighbor you've missed the mark totally," said Lazaro as he addressed representatives for Commerce Bank at last week's Great Falls Citizens Association meeting. "I'm familiar with Commerce Bank, I've heard it's a good bank, but you've got to look at the uniqueness of Great Falls — if you really want to be a good neighbor you need to redesign that albatross and make it look like something that belongs in this community."
Lazaro's remarks were met with a loud round of applause from the packed room of the Great Falls Grange. The Great Falls Citizens Association hosted the Commerce Bank presentation to allow residents to see the proposed bank design and offer their feedback — which turned out to be overwhelmingly negative.
Residents were unhappy with the structural design of the building and also expressed concern about the neon red, blue and white lights that are associated with the brand. Representatives for the bank said that the lights operate on a timer, with interior lights going out at 8 p.m. and all neon lights going out at midnight. However, several residents complained about the late shut-off hour and the subsequent light pollution to the community's treasured dark skies.
"I don't think the bank understands the community if they are planning to have three drive-through stalls, bright lights and neon," said Doug Natal. "The community values the night sky and the rural look of our community."
Ralph Lazaro urged Commerce Bank representatives to come back with a design that would complement the community's small town character.
"When Bank of America and the Post Office came into the community, they modified their structures significantly," said Lazaro.
Dave Bettwy attended the Commerce Bank presentation and was also unimpressed with the building design.
"I do not believe the present design fits in at all," said Bettwy. "My immediate reaction to their representation was that the façade looks like the screen at a drive-in theater — not pleasant in appearance at all."
COMMERCE BANK filed an application to develop at 725 Walker Road six months ago. The 2-acre property is zoned partially commercial and partially residential, and a bank would normally be considered a by-right use. However, as Commerce Bank wants to install several drive-through lanes, it had to file for a special exception in order to gain approval for construction. The owners of the Walker Road property currently live in Florida.
Since March, the Great Falls Citizens Association Land Use committee has had several meetings with Commerce Bank representatives. The initial concern with the application was the preservation of three large White Oak trees on the property. However, five unaffiliated arborists conducted assessments of the trees and found that two of the trees are in such poor health that they need to be removed, and that the third tree is in serious decline.
"We are willing to do whatever we reasonably can to save that one tree if you are in agreement with it, and the county is in agreement with it," said Fred Taylor, a representative for Commerce Bank.
Paul Nye, architect for the project, insisted that Commerce Banks are designed with the community in mind, and are built to be pleasant spaces for both customers and bank employees.
"The hallmark of the brand is that we have very large windows, and part of the reason for that is because Commerce does do extensive landscaping," said Nye. "We also have a 2-foot skylight because it makes the interior of the building a pleasant place to be in."
Nye added that the Walker Road Commerce Bank was designed in the style of a colonial house — utilizing brick and light-colored stone building materials.
"When you go into the interior, it's unlike any other bank," said Nye.
DESPITE these assertions, residents are still unhappy with the proposed design. At the close of Tuesday's presentation, Commerce Bank representatives assured residents that dialogue about the bank design would remain open, and that their feedback would be taken into account.
"They were advised to do a re-design to make the building more compatible with the community's desire to keep the area looking rural," said Dave Bettwy. "I hope they do that."
Design complaints aside, many residents are simply questioning the need for another bank in Great Falls at all.
"Why do we need another bank in Great Falls?" said Evvie Heilbrunn. "Bank of America just came in last year, we have two banks near the Safeway, the intersection of Walker and Georgetown Pike already has enough businesses and that wonderful oak tree was cut down. Can't we leave the last bit of green space alone?"
Mary Burnette, a 22-year resident of Great Falls, said "Great Falls needs another bank like D.C. needs another Starbucks. Can't the companies that manage these properties be more creative and give Great Falls something it really needs, like an ice cream shop or a kids' toy store?"
Resident Daniel Willison agrees that the addition of another bank should be the last priority for the community.
"Great Falls needs a number of things — another good restaurant and a video rental store to name just two — but another bank branch is not one of them," said Willison.