It's difficult these days to drive through Koreatown and Mid-Wilshire without noticing the mark of Christopher Pak.
At 7th Street and Serrano Avenue, there's a seven-story luxury condo tower that Pak has just completed. It's around the corner from the Aroma Sporex complex, Pak's gleaming five-story sports, health and retail facility that when completed a few years ago was the first large building to rise on that stretch of Wilshire Boulevard in a quarter of a century.
Just down Wilshire at Western Avenue, construction has begun on a 22-story condominium tower and upscale retail center rising above the Purple Line subway station.
Then there is Pak's biggest Koreatown project: a 40-story mixed-use tower that is the centerpiece of a Korean trade and cultural center. Pak stood with Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa in Seoul last fall when the mayor -- on his Asian trade mission -- announced the project and the more than $250 million in foreign investment that had been earmarked for it.
Pak, a 45-year-old architect, developer and political insider, is turning Koreatown into a testing ground for a vision of a dense, taller L.A. -- pushing the boundaries of what residents will bear when it comes to high-rise construction.
It's a style of building -- and living -- that he brings from projects he has designed in Asian cities such as Jakarta, Indonesia and Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
"We need to be embracing that density, that mix of residences, services and workplaces, libraries and schools in one area," said Pak, chief executive of Archeon International Group.
Others over the years have preached a similar vision of Los Angeles to a skeptical public, but Pak is succeeding where they have failed partly because he's an insider -- he was raised in Koreatown and has been part of the City Hall establishment since his early 30s. He is building his projects in a community of immigrants, particularly those from South Korea who are used to high-rise living.
Another factor working in Pak's favor is that his key projects are within the Wilshire Center/Koreatown Redevelopment Project, an area targeted for revitalization by the city in the wake of the 1992 riots. With that designation, the city is saying that the benefits of redevelopment outweigh the negative environment consequences, according to an analysis on file with the city Planning Department.
Pak has also gained a big ally in Villaraigosa, who has spoken often about the importance of a more vertical Los Angeles with higher-density buildings that mix housing, commercial and retail along major transportation corridors.
An enthusiastic Villaraigosa was on hand for the 2006 groundbreaking of the Solair Wilshire -- Pak and developer Bruce Rothman's joint venture with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority above the Purple Line subway station.
"Chris is an innovative, creative architect who has his pulse on the community and the wherewithal to make things happen," Villaraigosa said.
But Pak and his denser vision of L.A. have their share of detractors. Neighborhood activists, leery of development encroachment near residential areas abutting major boulevards, such as Olympic, complain that projects like his will change the historic character of neighborhoods, and they worry about the effect of density on the quality of life that residents of these areas have long enjoyed.
Critics question whether the new projects will get people out of their cars or simply bring more residents -- and commuters -- to the area's already clogged streets. An environmental impact study says the Solair project is expected to create 1,700 new daily trips. Critics are also leery of some of Pak's other ideas. He would like to see zoning rules changed so that a developer could offer less parking and instead provide more open space for residents.
Pak believes it would get people out of their cars and encourage other modes of transportation, but critics say this is a recipe for a street parking nightmare.
"The city's general plan is a good plan that strikes a balance between homeowners and developers," said Elizabeth Morehead, a former president of the Wilshire Park Assn. "I find his total and unmitigated dismissal of the general plan quite scary, given his considerable political clout."
Residents were up in arms when Pak and other developers sought to construct an eight-story, 30-unit luxury condo building at Olympic Boulevard and Gramercy Place.
Led by Arlin J. Low, president of the Country Club Heights Neighborhood Assn., numerous residents signed a petition urging the city not to grant a zoning variance.
They won. But Pak then went to work, spending months meeting with community groups. What resulted was a compromise that reduced the size of the project from eight stories to six and made other changes residents wanted. Many community leaders backed the new plan, though some residents still felt it was far too big.