Roosevelt Island has many of the things that make city neighborhoods vibrant, including a post office, an elementary school, a new hotel and a Cornell Tech campus. 

But it does not have a bank.

Branches have come and gone on the island since it first welcomed residents in 1975. The most recent one left Main Street in 2020, when the Amalgamated Bank branch closed, citing too little foot traffic.

That means residents who want to make transactions in person, check in with a bank rep or get money from a cash machine without paying a fee need to travel to Queens or the island of Manhattan.

After five banks came to the island for a fall tour,  two entered into talks with the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation about the possibility of opening a new branch. 

Counting on service

Longtime resident Nancy Brown, 80, says the return of a local branch would give her better access to banking services. She contracted polio when she was 7 and uses a respirator to breathe.

“It was very convenient when I had to make a deposit, take out money or pay a bill, I would just go to the bank here at that time, at Amalgamated,” she says. “When every bank changed, I would change my accounts to the new bank that opened at the time.” 

Melanie Buhrmaster, vice president of development at Smile Train who is in her first year on the island, says having a bank would make life better.  

“I’d consider changing accounts if there was a bank and if it was easy to use and there would be no ATM charges,” Buhrmaster, 49. “All the other ATM machines [in local stores] have like a three-dollar charge. There are also other services that a bank offers. My fiancé has a business. We’d be able to open up a business account for it, if needed. Because there isn’t one, you have to go to Manhattan.”

Banks face particular challenges on the island, which is home to about 14,000 residents, according to the operating corporation.

“You don’t get the normal foot traffic that would support a branch,” says Lynne Strong-Shinozaki, chair of the Roosevelt Island Committee at Community Board 8 and a resident for more than 30 years. “Even though we are affiliated with the Upper East Side of Manhattan, we are a middle-class unity. We don’t have the dollars that come from the wealthier banks in Manhattan from people putting in substantial amounts in a bank.”

Roosevelt Island is seeking the return of a local branch at time banks across the country continue to close them.

“Bank branches in New York City were already on the way down in the last five years and COVID-19 accelerated that,” says Paul Sheehan, 50, the CEO for Asia-Pacific at Melmotte Brothers Asia, who has has lived on the island since he was a child. “Most people learned to get by without physically going to the bank.”

Sites now seen

On Oct. 25, residents, lawmakers and community board members joined representatives from Apple Bank, Metropolitan Commercial Bank, New York Community Bank, Ridgewood Bank and TD Bank for a tour.

They looked at two sites—the Main Street spot Amalgamated had occupied and a raw space near the Cornell campus on the south side of the island. 

“The foot traffic on Roosevelt Island has definitely increased due to Cornell Tech University’s campus and the newly opened Graduate Hotels…” says Assemb. Rebecca Seawright (D-Manhattan). “The island would benefit from a bank due to there being many elderly and disabled residents on the island.”

At a recent Roosevelt Island community board meeting, Cory Hasson,  Seawright’s chief of staff said talks have continued with banks, elected officials and the operating corporation.

“It looks very promising,” he says. 

If this round of discussions doesn’t pan out, community leaders say they will not give up the battle for a new branch.

“We are not going to stop fighting until there is a bank there on the island,” says Russell Squire, chairman of Community Board 8. “We have new people who have just been elected and are coming in. We are just going to keep at it until we get somebody.”