See UPDATES below for more reader response

A Philadelphia reader, walking through Center City one day viewing all the new construction, realized to her surprise that an enterprise she thought was disappearing appears to be attracting new money and spreading to more corners.

So she wrote to Curious Philly — where readers ask our reporters questions and we hunt down answers — and posed this excellent question:

“It seems there is a recent significant increase in the number of storefront banks opening in Center City. Given the high rent for these locations, and the fact that people increasingly conduct their banking business electronically, what’s the explanation for this sudden surge?”

She is right — while bank branches are going out of style in most places, some banks are adding offices in Center City, and more are sprucing up their existing operations so they are more visible.

The number of bank branches in the U.S. peaked in the mid-2000s at about 100,000 and has since declined to under 90,000, as more people bank online, according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.

Banks have shut branches even faster in the Philadelphia area, which grew more slowly than the United States as a whole.

Yet there are also new bank branches — or at least new locations, and bright new signs — popping up in Center City, for several reasons:

  • A few big national banks, especially JPMorgan Chase & Co., are betting they can interest electronic customers and new ones in buying more products by sticking branches in high-traffic locations. Even small branches can function as billboards, flashing the brand name from bright new signs. Moorestown-based banker Vernon Hill has also been adding branches of Republic Bank; he says the vanished Philly banks have left a vacuum.
  • Out-of-town banks, such as WSFS from Wilmington, OceanFirst from the Jersey Shore, Fulton from Lancaster, and Truist (formerly BB&T) from North Carolina, have acquired Philadelphia-area banks and are seeking to raise their Center City profile because the neighborhood is one of the most lucrative and dynamic in the region. It has well-paid professionals, small-business owners, and medical and law students whom the banks hope to convert into profitable customers.
  • A few established banks such as Citizens, which has more branches in the SEPTA-served counties than any other bank, have been closing older locations and moving to shiny new digs on more prominent corners.

UPDATE Feb. 4: Veteran Philly banker and lawyer Harmon Spolan writes:

"Here are some reasons from an old banker about why banks are opening branches:

- Business borrowers need to come in to see lenders in person, present their case for a loan, with financials, a business plan (and other docs)

- Customers with problems need to talk to a banker in person. Phone contact is frustrating (even with -- or because of) Artificial Intelligence

- Not everyone owns a computer or smart phone. So non-internet folks do not have remote access.

- Internet-connected customers (still) aren’t all adept at remote banking

- Under the (U.S.) Community Reinvestment Act, new branch applications require that banks serve low-income communities in need of a bank presence. That requirement can’t be met by alleging remote banking as a substitute

“How about establishing a personal relationship with your banker? It really helps to be known by the bank personnel when you need them.”

ROBBERY UPDATE: A reader, who doesn’t want her name used, says Center City banks are popular with thugs, too:

Just last week, three Center City banks east of Broad Street were robbed:

  • Republic Bank on the 800 block of Chestnut Street. It was closed the following day; my informant says their hours have changed a bit, now opening at 8 a.m. instead of 7:30. (It was apparently robbed again on Feb. 5, this time at gunpoint. I’m told this suspect ran into the 8th and Chestnut Patco/Septa tunnel, where a dye pack exploded; so police should be able to check transit cameras to get an ID, if the suspect makes it past any officers in the neighborhood.)
  • PNC at 400 Market Street. Informant: “Staff is not allowed to discuss it, but (a bank employee at another branch) confirmed there was a robbery.”
  • Citizens Bank on the 800 block of Walnut Street. “I saw it on a (crime report) app on my phone.”