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A Citibank branch arrives on Massachusetts Avenue in Central Square in July 2007. (Photo: Rekha6)

A Citibank branch arrives on Massachusetts Avenue in Central Square in July 2007. (Photo: Rekha6)

The number of big bank branches in city squares would be frozen at current levels under a proposal city councillor Leland Cheung made Monday.

The order asks the Planning Board to craft language that would be added to the city’s zoning for Central, Harvard and Kendall squares.

“Over the years residents have expressed frustration that more and more retail locations are being taken over by banks,” said Cheung, whose order would have no effect on local institutions such as Cambridge Savings Bank, Cambridge Trust and East Cambridge Savings Bank, or any Massachusetts-based bank.

“A Massachusetts bank is going to be reinvesting in the community. A big international or foreign bank is not going to be putting money back the same way,” Cheung said Wednesday. “They’re not going to be at a Boy Scouts luncheon or contributing to a local charity.”

Frontage called a first step

Cheung first brought up limiting banks’ presence in July 2012, when North Massachusetts Avenue was being rezoned, but while he was interested in a cap on the number of big-bank locations that would mirror the cap on fast-food eateries at key locations, the focus of city planners during rezoning was on “frontage,” or the amount of storefront a business could put on a sidewalk. The limit was set at 25 feet of frontage.

But big banks keep coming into town “to buy up almost entire blocks and use them essentially as advertising … buying a storefront just to have their name plastered all over it,” Cheung said.

The frontage limits were a first step, Cheung said, and “now I’m asking them to take the second step.”

The problem spreads

Complaints about banks taking over Cambridge’s showpiece squares go back to 2004, when Citizens Bank and Sovereign Bank each added gleaming, two-story branches to an existing half-dozen financial institutions in Harvard Square. Despite those universal complaints, just five years later people were complaining that the incursion had spread to Central Square. CoUrbanize, a Cambridge startup that creates online discussion spaces for developments such as the former courthouse at 40 Thorndike St., cited both squares as suffering from the presence of too many banks:

Spaces of interaction – where people meet to share ideas, catch up and connect – are vital for urban neighborhoods. Banks have limited hours and are not open on weekends or evenings, leaving dark windows with no activity. Thanks to online banking and electronic deposits, most people conduct the majority of bank business online or at an ATM. The number of times a person visits their neighborhood bank branch, rather than an ATM, are likely fewer than visits to a restaurant or cafe.

“The overall goal is that we want active streetscapes. We want restaurants, retail and activities people can interact with,” Cheung said. “And I don’t want to be fixing the same problems people saw in Harvard and Central square in Kendall Square in 10 years.”