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The Changing Face Of Koreatown

Karaoke, Korean barbecue and spas. Among LA residents, those are often the first things that pop to mind when they think of Koreatown.

But the demographics and the dynamics of the community are changing as it increasingly becomes a hotbed for hotels, office and multifamily with Millennials flocking to the area.

Grand Medical Center in Koreatown

"It is driven by Millennials and younger people looking for an urban lifestyle," Iconic Investments founder Peter Strauss said. "A lot of them don't have cars. They will Uber from here to there. Cars and a parking space have become less important for some of the younger generation because they have easy access to Uber and the Metro station."

Iconic Investments founder Peter Strauss in Koreatown

Strauss has been working in the neighborhood since 2002 and has seen it change a lot over the years.

He recalls how, years ago, some young professionals would come to Koreatown just to hang out at the Line Hotel on Normandie and Wilshire. 

Now it is hard to keep pace with all the development in the area, and restaurant delivery services like Postmates and DoorDash are springing up as a result of increased demand.

There are more than 6,000 units under construction or in development in Koreatown, according to Strauss. 

Sanctuary on Kingsley in Koreatown was recently listed.

Offers are currently being reviewed for Sanctuary on Kingsley at 328 North Kingsley Drive, one of the properties Strauss is marketing in Koreatown.

The parcel of land is around 28,370 SF, and it is being marketed for $4.89M.

A developer could build up to 48 Class-A units, or 44 market-rate units and four very-low income units, on the property.

The site is just one of many that is being singled out for projects in the booming section of the city.

Jamison Realty CEO Jaime Lee

Jamison Services is an active developer in Koreatown.

"Koreatown is the epitome of a transit-oriented, cultural epicenter filled with diversity, density and new ideas," Jamison Realty CEO Jaime Lee said.

The firm, which has long had a commitment to the neighborhood, now has seven multifamily projects under construction: 3060 West Olympic Blvd., 3345 Wilshire Blvd., 3350 Wilshire Blvd., 3640 Wilshire Blvd., 535 South Kingsley, 685 South Catalina Ave. and 700 South Manhattan.

CityView CEO Sean Burton at last year's naming ceremony at The Pearl on Wilshire.

CityView recently developed The Pearl on Wilshire, a 346-unit building, at 687 South Hobart Blvd., at the corner of Wilshire Boulevard.

“Koreatown is a perfect example of the type of neighborhood CityView targets,” CityView CEO Sean Burton said. “There is incredible consumer demand in this area due to a severe housing shortage, and its location in the middle of LA puts residents close to jobs and everything else the city has to offer in terms of entertainment, restaurants and cultural amenities."

This 1920s building in Koreatown is being converted into apartments by Bernal Capital Group.

Bernal Capital Group is developing four multifamily buildings in Koreatown, according to its president,Newark’s Tech Revival And The Redevelopment That Comes With It Anthony Bernal.

"We wanted to do condo-style living, but in small spaces," Bernal said. "The micro-units are in high demand in this area."

One of the projects, at 681 Shatto Place, has barn doors and $1,200 vanities in some units.

Bernal Capital Group president Anthony Bernal and Iconic Investments founder Peter Strauss in Koreatown

He said many residents are attracted to the character of the older buildings and not worried about the lack of parking since Millennials take Uber and local transit.

Some of the units in Bernal's building even boast views of DTLA.

"Now's the time to buy, buy, buy," Bernal said. "That's why we're here."

This development and similar ones show how old Koreatown is mixing with the new.

Koreatown founder Gene Kim

Gene Kim, who moved to LA from Korea nearly 50 years ago to attend Pepperdine University as a graduate student, recalls when Olympic Boulevard was considered a slum.

It was his idea to put up signs written in Korean in 1972 after he opened a Korean bookstore there. The signs made locals feel at home, and soon other Korean businesses followed suit.

"Without Koreatown, everyone was lonesome, especially Koreans who didn't speak English well," Kim, 84, said.

Koreatown founder Gene Kim (center) with LA Mayor Tom Bradley (left) as the Grand Marshal of the Korean Parade and LA County Supervisor James Hahn as the Honorary Grand Marshal in 1975.

Koreatown was officially recognized by the LA City Council as its own section of LA in 1980.

Kim said he is proud of the strides Koreatown and Koreans have made over the years.

"Koreans contribute a lot to LA," Kim said. "Koreatown pays a lot of taxes because we have successful businesses."

View of DTLA from Bernal Capital Group project in Koreatown

Developers say many residents are attracted to Koreatown's proximity to DTLA.

Koreatown's resurgence is drawing notice from large, publicly traded companies that are now getting in on the action.

"You're getting national and institutional investors coming in, so it's drawing money from larger pools than just local investors," Strauss said.

Grand Spa in Koreatown

Koreatown has drawn a YogaWorks on 7th Street. Starbucks, Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf and Chipotle have also taken up residence in the neighborhood.

The Grand Spa is building a 99-room hotel on West Sixth Street.

With the growth come higher rents as well.

The Vermont, at 3150 Wilshire Blvd., has one-bedroom apartments going for between $2,500 and $3,650/month and two-bedrooms for up to $4,500.

The Metro on Wilshire Boulevard in Koreatown

Wilshire Center Koreatown Neighborhood Council vice president Bill Robinson has lived in the neighborhood for 38 years.

He said Koreatown's nickname is Na-sung Gu, which is like saying Koreatown is another overseas district of Seoul.

Robinson, who was educated in Beijing, said he hears more Chinese spoken in the area now, too.

"Koreatown is the cultural mecca of Korean-American life in greater LA," he said.

The demographics of Koreatown began to change after the early 1990s and after the LA riots, according to Robinson. As a result, mainstream companies began to leave the area.

Koreatown's boundaries have expanded over time. The area now covers west of Western to Vermont. It also includes from Beverly Boulevard South to Olympic Boulevard to the north.

"It's bigger than it used to be," Strauss said on a recent walking tour of the area.

While it is called Koreatown, only one-third of the people living there are actually descendants of Korean immigrants now, according to Strauss.

Although Kim no longer lives in the area he called home for about 45 years, his heart is still there.

Festival founder Gene Kim's open car parade with Capt. Tina Nieto, Olympic Police Station

Kim continues to organize the Korean Festival and parade, which attracts people and politicians from all over the city every year. This year's festival is scheduled to be held Oct. 14.

Kim said he is pleased with the development going on in Koreatown now and having it be part of the local melting pot is advantageous to all.

"This is America," Kim said. "Every community has an opportunity. I think that is American power."