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An Ethnic Center’s New Pull

Times Staff Writer

Set between the Byzantine Revival dome of the Wilshire Boulevard Temple and the dancing neon lights of the Art Deco Wiltern Theatre, a new landmark is taking root along the storied avenue.

With its futuristic glass facade and two-story television screen flashing Korean ads, the Aroma Spa and Sports Center is a stark visual contrast to the neighborhood’s faded gems like the Ambassador Hotel and Bullocks Wilshire department store. But it is a sign that luxury is returning to Wilshire, and that Koreatown itself is on the move.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Dec. 17, 2004 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday December 17, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 69 words Type of Material: Correction
Koreatown streets -- A map of Koreatown in Wednesday’s Section A with an article about the Los Angeles neighborhood showed its boundaries as Hoover Street on the east, Norton Avenue on the west, Pico Boulevard on the south and Beverly Boulevard on the north. The map was meant to show the growth of Korean businesses, not the boundaries of Koreatown. The city does not delineate specific boundaries for Koreatown.

Aroma, a five-story shopping center, spa and athletic club, is a replica of a similar facility in Seoul, where pampering affluent customers is a fine art.

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Up its marble-floored courtyard, Aroma offers massages, baths, saunas and steam rooms, including some with jade floors and mud walls of red clay imported from South Korea’s Cholla province. With the push of a button, golfers can summon a waitress to bring freshly squeezed orange juice while they practice at the indoor driving range.

It caters to a new generation of affluent Koreans who are changing the city center.

Some are immigrants from South Korea, concerned about economic instability in their country, who invest in California businesses and real estate. Such moves entitle them to an investment visa, known as an E-2, which enables them to stay in the United States.

Others helped form the community in the 1970s and ‘80s, but then left it for bigger homes and better schools in the suburbs. With their children now in college or working, they are coming back.

“In the old days, it was a status symbol to live away from Koreatown,” said Sun-Kil Pak, who moved to Koreatown a year ago from the Westside, where she had lived since the late 1980s. “These days, you’re almost embarrassed to live far away. When you go to meetings at night, people tease you, ‘Why do you live so far away? Why are you driving home so late?’ ”

The influx is helping shift Koreatown’s geography. The community was formed in the late 1960s and early ‘70s along a dilapidated stretch of Olympic Boulevard near Western Avenue. But now, Wilshire is emerging as the main drag, especially for the newcomers.

Developers are converting several high-rise office buildings along Wilshire Boulevard into luxury apartments. A few blocks away, the shuttered I. Magnin department store, for generations a hangout for white-gloved ladies who lunched, has become Wilshire Galleria, an upscale Korean arcade featuring high-end jewelry and apparel, beauty treatment boutiques and an art gallery.

The eight California-chartered Korean banks in Koreatown are all within several blocks of Wilshire, sometimes called the “Korean Wall Street.” They now have combined assets of about $9 billion.

The 2000 Census found 92,000 Koreans in Los Angeles -- about half of them within the traditional Koreatown boundaries of Hoover Street on the east, Norton Avenue on the west, Pico Boulevard on the south and Beverly Boulevard on the north.

But real estate brokers, bankers and community leaders estimate that several thousand more have arrived in the last few years -- from South Korea and the suburbs. The local banks also report an increase in investment from South Korea, a sign that immigrants are purchasing property and businesses.

Koreatown has been known for its hip and exotic night spots, but the district has also seen a boom in businesses geared toward the older generation. In addition to the steam rooms at Aroma, patrons now crowd into a variety of “song rooms” in Koreatown, where they can belt out nostalgic 1950s and ‘60s-era songs from their youth.

“There are two cultures in Koreatown,” said Charles J. Kim, a child of Koreatown who is national president of the Korean American Coalition. “Sauna culture and cafe culture.”

*

For Jung-In Lee, 53, the decision to move back to Koreatown, where her family lived in the early 1980s, came within months after their younger son, Jim, started at UC Berkeley in 1998.

During the nearly 12 years the family lived in Walnut, Lee often spent three hours a day commuting to and from her Koreatown job in publishing, she said.

Lee said her family moved out of Koreatown because of schools and crime. She said that when she saw one of her sons go into a liquor store with a classmate after school, she realized it was time for the family to move.

But during her time in the suburbs, she was so stressed out from the commute that she barely had time to enjoy their four-bedroom “dream house.”

“Now, I have a life,” said Lee, who lives a mile from her office. “I can play tennis before going to work. I can even get up at 8 o’clock and make it to work on time. Can you imagine that?”

Their younger son lives at home while working and attending graduate school. But the older son, John, an associate at the downtown law firm Nossaman, Guthner, Knox & Elliott, lives in the Miracle Mile -- “a 20-minute jog” from his parents’ place.

“I enjoy being right in the middle between downtown and Westside,” he said. “It’s 15 minutes door-to-door” from his apartment to his office.

There are trade-offs, of course. Her husband, Sang-Chul Kim, a 55-year-old business consultant, said he misses the spaciousness of Walnut and a backyard with fruit trees.

“Koreatown is congested and doesn’t look clean,” he said.

But its proximity to the mansions of Hancock Park makes up for it, he said. “Every evening after work, I take a walk in Hancock Park. I enjoy all those beautifully tended gardens without paying a gardener.”

Insurance agent Nam-Tai Cho, who lived in Northridge, Van Nuys and Calabasas for two decades while raising his family, likens living in Koreatown to “coming home.”

He and his wife, Hea-Kyung, bought a condo on Wilshire Boulevard near his office 18 months ago.

“Sometimes I go home for lunch,” Cho said. “If I have a meeting at night, I go home to take a short break first.” On Monday evenings after work, the Chos attend a weekly Bible class at their church nearby -- something they couldn’t even consider when they lived in the San Fernando Valley.

Since they moved to Koreatown, they have changed homes twice, settling a year ago not far from Aroma.

A leader in the transformation of Wilshire is David Y. Lee, 50, an internist turned real estate tycoon.

His Jamison Properties Inc., which owns 27 high-rise buildings on Wilshire, is by far the largest landlord in Koreatown. Lee began buying in 1995, when insurance companies such as Travelers, John Hancock and Equitable were leaving the area.

Over the last few years, those office buildings have been filled by a mix of tenants, including government agencies and trade schools as well as Korean entrepreneurs and professionals.

His current projects include a shopping center behind the Equitable Plaza at Wilshire and Alexandria, and three condominium complexes, with 190 units.

Lee believes that the recent influx of Korean professionals has helped the revival, though he said it is by no means complete.

Concerns about crime remain a nagging issue that keeps people away -- especially young families.

Moreover, the area has yet to attract high-end non-Korean restaurants, boutiques, bookstores and movie theaters. Lee and others had once hoped the Ambassador Hotel site could be used to lure upscale retailers to the area. But the Los Angeles Unified School District, which owns the land, intends to build a school there.

“Not getting the Ambassador Hotel was a loss for the Korean community,” he said.

Despite these shortcomings, there is no question that Koreatown is in demand.

“All of a sudden, the area is becoming hip with places to go,” said Jack Kyser, chief economist for the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp.

Real estate agents are hard pressed to locate newer condos and townhouses near Wilshire for their clients.

The scarcity of desirable residential stock has hiked condo prices to $550,000 and up, according to real estate agents.

“They’re overpriced, but it’s a case of supply and demand,” said Suky Lee, a real estate agent with Nelson, Shelton & Associates in Beverly Hills, who has many Korean clients.

*

Adding to the crunch are investors from South Korea, who see Koreatown as a safe harbor to invest a portion of their assets. To people from Seoul, where an average condo runs $1 million, even the most expensive condos in Koreatown can seem like a bargain.

“They may not look that nice from the outside, but on the inside, they have nice wooden floors and beautiful kitchens,” said E.J. Kim, president of Calvest Realty. “So, they don’t mind spending $750,000 for a condo or a townhouse.”

For visitors from South Korea, one way to remain in the United States is by investing in residential property, restaurants, coffee shops, factories, strip malls or other businesses, say Koreatown bankers and lawyers.

Then, they can apply for the E-2 investment visa.

That’s what Scott Hwang, 32, did soon after arriving in Los Angeles from Seoul in 2001 on a student visa. He bought a restaurant in Koreatown and operated it for nearly two years. Earlier this year, he sold it and bought Cafe Spot at the corner of 6th and Catalina streets. He also bought a condo on Wilshire at the edge of Hancock Park.

The Spot, with oak paneling and tables, and an extensive menu of beverages and desserts, is dignified enough to attract older customers by day and hip enough to draw younger Koreans by night.

Hwang’s investment enabled him to get an E-2 visa, which means he can stay here as long as he continues to own a business.

He spends most of his time running the cafe, which is open until 4 a.m., and handling other business matters. He heads to Aroma each day to work out.

Hwang, who was in the car repair business in Seoul, said his days are busy but rewarding. He regrets not having family close by to help make decisions, though he adds he is looking for a wife.

“In America, you are rewarded for the work you do. It gives me much joy to work,” he said.

To qualify for an E-2 visa, an applicant is required to make a “substantial investment,” which means about $150,000 to $250,000, said immigration law attorney David Y. Kim. The visa also enables the investor’s spouse to get a work visa and their children to come live here.

It also could mean huge savings in tuition for Korean students in the University of California system. Some South Koreans buy condos in Koreatown for their children who attend colleges in the area.

Benjamin Hong, president and chief executive of Nara Bank, estimated that up to a third of the assets of the eight Korean banks in Los Angeles come from South Korean investments. At least 10% of customers at the bank’s Olympic Boulevard branch making loan requests are seeking E-2 visas, said branch manager Young K. Oh.

No one knows how many E-2 visas are issued to Korean nationals, because the federal immigration agency does not maintain statistics by country.

But several prominent Koreatown immigration lawyers said the number of clients seeking E-2 visas has more than doubled in the last two years.

*

The changes have created a Koreatown that is heavy on Korean adults but light on children. Even parents who work in the area complain about the schools and lack of parks.

But there are some signs that this too is slowly changing.

Ophthalmologist Paul C. Lee, 41, his wife, Candice, and their two young children are relatively recent arrivals.

Lee opened his Lasik surgery clinic in Koreatown four years ago, commuting from the family’s home in Temecula. The drive was so long that he ended up renting an apartment in Torrance.

The Lees then bought a townhouse on Wilshire, a five-minute drive to his office and their children’s school at St. James Episcopal Church on Wilshire. Recently, they traded in the townhouse for a house, committed to raising Bryanna, 7, and Brennan, 5, in Koreatown.

Koreatown doesn’t offer the athletic fields and other suburban amenities of Temecula. But it’s close to his mother, offers plenty of Korean food and culture for Lee’s family, and feels like home.

“I’ve come to appreciate the confluence of different cultures,” Lee said. “I want my children to be exposed to that.”


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