Citibank's plans for branch closings and downsizings are filtering out to the public, and New York-area community activists are none too pleased.
Though the nation's biggest commercial bank has kept quiet about its retail reengineering, the affected offices are becoming too numerous not to be noticed. Protests are brewing, and there have been calls for a boycott by small businesses.
The Citicorp unit has disclosed it closed six branches last year and expects to shutter 11 more this year. What's more, Citibank has converted, or plans to convert, 26 full-service offices to automated facilities.
Citibank recently denied press reports that it was planning to close or convert as many as 60 metropolitan-area branches, or nearly one-third of its New York City network.
But the bank now says it has closed or converted 47, or 24%, of its 196 metropolitan New York offices.
Susan Weeks, a spokeswoman, said the bank is reviewing its entire New York branch network. It has decided the future of 80% of the network, she said, but no final shutdown total has been set.
She also noted the bank is investing up to $100 million to renovate branches.
"We are investing in all communities, including low-income neighborhoods," Ms. Weeks said. "Traffic patterns change, living patterns change, and the way you do your banking has changed."
Meanwhile, Citicorp has been using lower fees and other incentives to encourage use of electronic banking services and has been steadily expanding outside the United States with an emphasis on high- net-worth individuals.
In general, Citibank is not out of line with other banks that have moved aggressively into alternative modes of service delivery. Wells Fargo & Co., becoming increasingly reliant on supermarket facilities and electronic services, closed 43 of its 578 traditional offices in 1995, expects to accelerate those moves this year, and plans to close 350 of First Interstate Bancorp's 405 California branches after completing that pending acquisition.
New York critics have charged Citibank with deliberately concealing the extent of its branch cutbacks. They said the bank does not have to obtain authorization from the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency to close branches and is only required to file a notice with the national bank regulator and with customers 90 days in advance.
"Citicorp is flying below the radar on this," said Matthew Lee, executive director of Inner City Press/Community on the Move, a Bronx-based activist group.
Citibank's opponents, including local neighborhood Chambers of Commerce, said small businesses without access to branches are not in a position to apply for loans or handle much of their other banking activities electronically. Activists also charge that many older customers and the poor have difficulty adjusting to technology.
"Citicorp's advertising shows street-smart yuppies going on-line, but people in Parkchester in the Bronx don't have laptops and PCs," Mr. Lee said. The bank has "clearly decided which portion of New York City it wants to serve and that doesn't include moderate- and low-income people."
Rep. Eliot L. Engel, a New York Democrat, wrote a letter to Comptroller of the Currency Eugene Ludwig complaining about "a reduction of 29% of Citibank's full-service branches" within his borough of the Bronx.
Rep. Engel asked Mr. Ludwig to take this into account in Citibank's annual Community Reinvestment Act review.
In his letter to Mr. Ludwig, Rep. Engel noted that many of Citibank's customers in the Bronx are either eldery or working class or members of minority groups who "deserve the same level of service and ease of access as is provided to Citibank customers in other neighborhoods throughout the metropolitan area."
"Citibank is embarking on an extensive international marketing campaign designed to make Citibank a truly global bank," the letter said. "While no one opposes their efforts, it is important that Citibank continues to live up to its obligations to the people of the Bronx."