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LA's Koreatown's about to get even more crowded thanks to new development

By some measures, Koreatown is Los Angeles's most densely-populated neighborhood, with more than 100,000 people squeezed into under three square miles.

Now it’s going to get more packed.

Hundreds of new apartments are coming online in the next few years, as more Angelenos gravitate to the culturally-vibrant, centrally-located neighborhood next to downtown.

Council President Herb Wesson, who represents Koreatown, said the area is particularly suited for a development boom because it’s already known for being one of the L.A.’s most urban areas.

“It’s our little piece of New York,” Wesson said. “It’s our little piece of Manhattan.”

Development in Koreatown is seen by politicians as part of the solution to the city’s severe housing shortage. Mayor Eric Garcetti said the city needs to produce 100,000 new housing units in L.A. by 2021. 

The dozens of developments under construction in Koreatown or in the pipeline are often referred to as transit-oriented development because they provide easy access to metro stops and bus routes.  

But some Koreatown residents worry the new construction will bring gentrification. And they expect the roads to get more congested, pointing out that the new developments come with hundreds of parking spaces. They wonder how much more crowded can their neighborhood get.

“Density doesn’t beget density,” said resident Lisa Fu. “It brings more pollution, more people and we don’t need more of that.”

Fu and others oppose a planned residential high-rise with 270 units down the block from her apartment on Catalina Street, near the RFK complex of community schools in a quieter part of the neighborhood.

The mayor's appointees to the Planning Commission rejected the project as too large for its surroundings, but Garcetti overruled their decision. The City Council gave the project final approval last week.

Locals such as Fu have formed a group called Protect Koreatown to pressure the developer Mike Hakim to provide affordable housing. Under the conditions of council approval, Hakim must either build some below-market rate on the premises or give $3 million to the city’s affordable housing trust.

Hakim, who did not return requests for comment, roused the ire of some neighbors when he told city officials last year that he wanted to return the neighborhood to its heyday decades ago. He said it’s now overrun with gangs and prostitution.

But for the most part, developers do not face the force of opposition in Koreatown like they do in other parts of the city like Hollywood where “Manhattan” can be a dirty word. In Hollywood, neighborhood activists upset about large developments there put up billboards that read “Stop Manhattanwood,” and are pushing a ballot measure that would impose a two-year moratorium on large developments in the city.

But the working poor of Koreatown are among those who stand to lose the most from large, market-rate developments, said Alexandra Suh, who heads the Koreatown Immigrant Workers Alliance. She worried about residents getting priced out: 90 percent of residents are renters, and the majority are low-wage workers from Latin America employed by restaurants, caterers, trucking companies and garment makers.

Suh said she’s not against new development but thinks too much of it is for the well-heeled newcomers she sees walking around with their dogs.

“I genuinely believe that Koreatown is a welcoming place where everyone, even hipster dogwalkers can find a home, we just don’t want to skew our neighborhood to cater only to that population,” Suh said.

She said she gets a pang in her heart when she sees the new development going up in a spot diagonal from the Wilshire Boulevard Temple, next to the four-story golf driving range.

Suh and others had once hoped the two-acre parking lot could be turned into a park. Instead it is being built into a development with 8,000 square feet of commercial space and nearly 350 market-rate units. There will be space for nearly 580 cars.

Suh said at least the project by developer CityView — which will be five-stories high — fits in with the tall buildings that line Wilshire Boulevard.

Investors are putting more than $100 million into the project, said CityView president Sean Burton. He said he’s confident the building will have no trouble drawing young professionals who want to live near mass transit, jobs, as well as “great restaurants and things to do at night.”

“Koreatown is right in the heart of that,” Burton said. “We want to attract the millennial renter who wants to be near all the action.” 

The “Pearl on Wilshire” building will feature Korean BBQ grills, a rooftop pool, a putting green and dog wash.

When it opens in 2018, management plans to charge market rates.

The project has the support of groups like the Korean American Chamber of Commerce and council president Wesson.

Wesson says Koreatown needs housing units at all cost levels. As with other parts of the city the building of market-rate housing is outpacing below market-rate. In the last decade, roughly 2,700 new market-rate units have been created compared to about 550 “affordable” and senior housing units, according to Wesson’s office.