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Highway Profile for Garden Grove's Koreatown?

Retail: The district wants to be the county's second ethnic enclave with a freeway sign. It would boost business, backers say.


The drive to Garden Grove's Korean Business District should have taken Lisa Kim only 15 minutes. But the 18-year-old visitor from Oregon got lost.

"I was getting frustrated because I kept making U-turns. And then it took a while for me to find a parking space," Kim said. "I almost gave up going to the store."

For merchants who hope the four-block, mile-long shopping district will someday become Orange County's unquestioned Koreatown, getting on the map has been an uphill battle.

But the district may get a boost in visibility. Merchants will ask the California Department of Transportation this week for a sign on the Garden Grove Freeway. If it's granted, the shopping district would be the second ethnic enclave in Orange County to be granted a freeway marker.

The shopping district is dotted with Korean businesses, a seemingly haphazard collection of older buildings and new plazas that, if not for the Korean signs and logos on storefronts and a pair of concrete monuments, would be indistinguishable from any other commercial strip. More than 1,000 businesses--bookstores, restaurants, groceries, car dealers--line the stretch of Garden Grove Boulevard.

"We need to promote the area because it's not only for Koreans, it's for everyone," said Euiwon Chough, a Korean Chamber of Commerce leader who has pushed for six years to get freeway signs. "We have signs for South Coast Plaza, the Performing Arts Center and Buena Park Mall, why not the Korean Business District?"

Ethnic business districts have become tourist destinations throughout Southern California. In Los Angeles, freeway signs guide out-of-towners to Chinatown, Little Tokyo, Thai Town, Little India and Olvera Street. Little Saigon, a thriving Vietnamese community across town from the Korean Business District, is Orange County's only ethnic business community with a highway sign.

The signs, merchants and city officials agree, would be a public relations victory, a symbol that the shopping district is worthy of commuter attention.

Sun Kim, owner of KitchenLand, hopes the attention will attract a more diverse customer base.

"I'd like to introduce our Korean products to other people," said Kim, who sells imported housewares. "We want to share our culture."

Merchants will ask Caltrans to erect four signs along the Garden Grove Freeway, two in each direction at the Beach Boulevard exit and an identical set at Brookhurst Street. There are already signs at the Brookhurst exit directing travelers to Little Saigon.

Caltrans officials said they are concerned that adding the signs could clutter the freeways.

"Too many signs can confuse people," said Caltrans spokesman Albert Miranda. "We're very careful to provide only the right amount of signs to get people to where they want to go."

After it files its application, the Korean Business District must produce evidence that the area attracts a high volume of visitors and show how it plans to guide motorists to the retail district. The city has already endorsed the request, another condition Caltrans requires.

The proposed freeway signs are the latest in a series of steps designed to distinguish--and bring customers to--the shopping district. Last year the Korean American community installed a west-facing monument at the Brookhurst Way end of the commercial section, officially designating the stretch as the Korean Business District.

The previous year, the Korean Chamber of Commerce installed a similar monument--facing east--at the western boundary at Fern Street. Both monuments, paid for by local businesses, say "Welcome" in Korean on the front and "Leave safely" in Korean on the back.

Despite the efforts, business in the Korean Shopping District has not grown dramatically. City officials say the sales tax revenue from the district has been flat for nearly a decade, a reflection of the economy and the fact that only a few large businesses have settled in the area in the last couple of years.

The city earns about $400,000 annually in sales taxes, about 3% of its total, from the business district, a trend that has held steady for three years, said Community Development Director Matthew Fertal.

Further, the upswing in Orange County's Korean population, as well as the predicted migration of businesses from Los Angeles following the 1992 riot, have been less than expected.

Korean Americans now make up 14% of Orange County's Asian population. At 55,573, the Korean population trails the number of Vietnamese and Chinese American residents.

While Garden Grove was the heart of the county's Korean American community a decade ago, the U.S. Census shows that more Koreans now live in Fullerton and Irvine, where the Korean population more than doubled.

"People may want to live in cities outside of Garden Grove but they come here to eat, shop and do business," Chough said.


Times staff writer Scott Martelle contributed to this report.

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