KOREATOWN EMBARKS ON A NEW PHASE : New Retail Plaza Aims to Broaden Customer Base

<i> Times Staff Writer</i>

Amid the clutter of small shops and businesses that line Western Avenue between Olympic Boulevard and Eighth Street rises a giant new structure with just a single sign in English: Koreatown Plaza. Workers are putting the finishing touches on the $25-million, trilevel, indoor mall--the first mid-city development of its size in years.

Although still empty--the mall doesn’t open until late January--Koreatown Plaza symbolizes a new phase of the Korean business community in Southern California. Believed to be the biggest project undertaken by Koreans in the Southland, it represents a size and scope far beyond the small retail outlets that have until now been the dominant form of Korean-operated business in the area.

The brainchild of developer Joong Nam Yang, who has built other retail complexes in Koreatown, the new mall was designed by Ki Suh Park, managing partner at the architectural firm of Gruen Associates. Its 227,000 square feet of retail space will house 85 to 90 shops, an international food court, a bank, restaurants and a supermarket.

That is huge compared to other retail developments in the area, although it is smaller than the closest new shopping center--the 345,000-square-foot 7th Market Place at Citicorp Plaza downtown.


But more important than its imposing size and design, Koreatown Plaza will attempt to draw a broader base of customers to the area, thus signifying a new effort to reach beyond the Korean community--the bread and butter of businesses in the Koreatown area generally bounded by Olympic Boulevard, Eighth Street, Crenshaw Boulevard and Hoover Street.

Branching Out

“In opening this center, we are going to attract American customers to this Korean community,” says Young Chae, a representative for developer Yang. “We are going to promote it to the American community and the ethnic communities. We are going to have monthly events inside the shopping mall not only for the businesses but for the Wilshire community people.”

The new outreach symbolized by Koreatown Plaza is touching other aspects of Korean enterprise as well, as it branches out from retailing to banking and real estate.

An investment group composed of Hankook Realty Co., the Korea Times and Dr. Indong Oh purchased the Texaco Building in the Mid-Wilshire area last May for $13.5 million. Goon Suk Hah and Young Song Lee, two Korean-American investors, purchased a site occupied by a Safeway store at Third Street and Vermont Avenue for possible development. Kwan Lee and Dal Lee bought the troubled Via Verdi Country Club in San Dimas in 1983 and two years later put the club back in the black.

Korean entrepreneurs are also moving into light manufacturing, food processing, distribution and other services. These businesses are scattered all over the Southland.

“To some extent, the second-stage growth is occurring, but not necessarily in Koreatown,” explains Tong Soo Chung, an attorney with the law firm of Kim, Chung & Lim in Los Angeles. “It happens to be wherever a Korean decides to live.”

The move outward is driven by a number of factors. “Certain market and financial factors are influencing this dispersed kind of community outlook,” explains Park of Gruen Associates, who came to the United States in 1953.

In the early 1970s, newly arrived Korean immigrants clustered along Olympic Boulevard, opened small businesses between Vermont and Western avenues because space was plentiful at low rents. The area quickly became a focal point for the nation’s largest concentration of Koreans. But prosperity has pushed up rents dramatically and has sent Korean entrepreneurs elsewhere.

Now food markets in Koreatown, which once drew customers from Orange County and the San Fernando Valley, face competition from similar markets in those areas. A second Koreatown, for example, has emerged in Garden Grove.

Community Center

In addition, the majority of Korean-owned businesses--from gas stations to auto repair outlets to dry cleaning shops--are not within the vicinity of Koreatown. A 1984 survey--the latest available--by the Korean Chamber of Commerce of Los Angeles showed that 60% of the 7,000 Korean-owned businesses in Los Angeles County are outside Los Angeles’ Koreatown.

“Most Korean businesses cater to non-Koreans,” lawyer Chung says.

Such developments have sent Koreatown merchants searching for new ideas to keep the area growing. Most of Koreatown is composed of narrow shopping strips along Olympic Boulevard and Eighth Street.

A citizens’ advisory group has been meeting with the Los Angeles City Planning Department to explore the possibility of rezoning some parcels to develop large commercial complexes and to build a community and cultural affairs center for Koreatown.

“Part of the reason,” Chung says, “is that people are comparing Koreatown with Little Tokyo and Chinatown. They feel business could be better if they develop a center with pedestrian traffic. They are trying to develop areas where people park and walk from store to store and then shop.” More important, he says, the area needs a community center.

Gruen Associates’ Park, who is chairman of the Koreatown Specific Plan Advisory Committee, says: “The real challenge in Koreatown with the market dictating dispersal is how do you create a one-of-a-kind quality.”

He explains that Little Tokyo and Chinatown are confined geographically by external factors such as freeways or surrounding land uses. “They have managed to create an image in a confined area,” he says. In contrast, Koreatown has no physical constraints, so businesses tend to scatter, which diminishes any geographic center to the area.

The progress of Koreatown Plaza will be watched closely by the Korean community because its success could be the catalyst for persuading the city to change the area’s zoning to allow such large commercial developments.

Koreatown Plaza was built on a three-acre site formerly occupied by a used-car lot. The mall will offer modern shopping amenities such as enclosed parking for 700 cars, skylights and security, in addition to the stores.

Chae, the representative for Yang, reports that Koreatown Plaza is 60% rented, with tenants including Plaza Market, California Korea Bank and Samsung Fashion Store, the first U.S. retail outlet by the diversified Korean manufacturer.

Koreatown Plaza is strictly a commercial venture, and community leaders believe that the area needs a development that would provide a center for community and cultural events that would also draw a broad base of people into Koreatown.

Meanwhile, the number of Korean-owned banks and other investments are increasing. Eui-Young Yu, a professor of sociology at California State University, Los Angeles, says many early Korean immigrants began their lives in this country with blue-collar work and then moved into retailing. “They do that for maybe five, seven or 10 years. Now in 1987, those immigrants who came in the early 1970s, some are getting into a little higher level of business like banking.”