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More Than Koreatown

Brian Kim, left, and Michael Kim hope to build a modern office, residential and retail center to replace a shopping strip in Annandale.
Brian Kim, left, and Michael Kim hope to build a modern office, residential and retail center to replace a shopping strip in Annandale. (By Rich Lipski -- The Washington Post)
By Elissa Silverman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 6, 2006

Real estate developer Michael Kim spent the first seven years of his childhood in Seoul, and when he looks at the 12-acre strip shopping center he now co-owns in Annandale, there's plenty to remind him of the homeland.

Too much, in fact.

The bakery selling Korean pastries and beverages has been a stable tenant. But when Kim meets someone for coffee, he walks across the parking lot to Wendy's.

The video store with Korean movies and television shows attracts a steady stream of devoted customers. But Kim would prefer to spend an afternoon with his family browsing at Barnes & Noble.

So as elected officials and residents debate the future of what has become known as Koreatown, one of the strongest advocates for change is Kim -- a Korean American who sees an oversaturation of bulgogi and karaoke in the Fairfax County community where he grew up.

Kim, 43, and his business partner Brian Kim, 41, (no relation) are seeking county approval for a high-density office, residential and retail center on their property, bringing Korean voices to the debate over Koreatown's future.

They sound much like any developer in the inner suburbs. Instead of the existing Kmart, they see a collection of destination retail stores. Instead of a hodgepodge of small ethnic and other businesses, they see Annandale remodeled into a town center of high-price condominiums, landscaped fountains and public space, and national chain stores like Ann Taylor and Sunglass Hut.

"When you define this as a Koreatown, to me that's a very limiting factor," Michael Kim said. "This is not play money we're messing around with here."

As the Washington area's roads have become more crowded and development sprawls farther into the countryside, high-density town-center projects have blossomed in older neighborhoods such as Silver Spring, Clarendon and Merrifield. Traditional shopping strips with small businesses and ethnic restaurants are now seen by developers as convenient, underutilized and potentially valuable. However, combining small parcels of land into larger tracts, and planning for more dense development, often means replacing what's there with tenants that can pay higher rents.

"It's easy to build a town center in the middle of a cornfield, but it's a lot harder when you have things already there," said Daniel McKinnon, a member of the Annandale Central Business District Planning Committee, a group of mostly non-Korean residents and business owners that supports a remodeling of Annandale even more extensive than the Kims have proposed.

In Annandale, the first-generation Korean business owners shy away from groups such as McKinnon's and the Chamber of Commerce even though they make up a sizable percentage of the business community.

On Annandale's main drag, there's no traditional gate or arch to identify the area as an ethnic enclave, such as on H Street NW in the District's Chinatown or at the Eden Center, a shopping center in the Falls Church area filled with Vietnamese stores and restaurants. Tucked in the low-slung shopping centers dotting Little River Turnpike, Columbia Pike and Annandale Road, however, the clothing-store windows showcase outfits for more petite frames, the restaurants feature barbecue and sushi, and the gas stations advertise oil changes in Korean. The language also appears on signs for opticians, bookstores and nightclubs.

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