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REAL ESTATE

Big mall sold in Little Tokyo

The Korean American buyers contemplate sweeping changes.

May 31, 2008|Roger Vincent | Times Staff Writer

A shopping center in the Little Tokyo section of downtown Los Angeles that calls itself the largest indoor Japanese shopping mall in the country has been acquired by investors who may convert its theme to Korean.

L.A.'s Little Tokyo is the largest of the three major Japantowns left in California, but a wave of multicultural investors, residents and visitors has been transforming the area in recent years as part of an economic boom downtown.

The sale of Little Tokyo Shopping Center was greeted with some apprehension by other local businesses, said Bill Watanabe, director of the Little Tokyo Service Center, who said he hoped the new owners would "have sensitivity about the neighborhood they are moving into."

Six Korean American investors bought the mall for $35.5 million, real estate broker Jason Kim of Coldwell Banker Commercial said Friday. He declined to identify his clients but said they were in the wholesale business, including fashion, in Los Angeles.

Korean American investors have been among the most eager commercial real estate investors in Los Angeles County in recent years.

"We haven't finalized what we want to do with the property," Kim said. "We're considering plans to do it a couple of different ways."

One of them would be to convert the three-story structure at 3rd and Alameda streets into a Korean-themed center with a Korean market, an electronics store and a Korean-style spa with herbal steam rooms.

Another possible approach, Kim said, would be to create a more broadly American-style market with a mainstream grocery store such as Ralphs and nationally recognized retailers.

"We want to analyze both possibilities," Kim said. The buyers should settle on their plans within a few weeks, he said, and either makeover will be expensive. No budget has been set, he said.

The center opened in 1985 and became popular among Japanese American residents and Japanese visitors who patronized its Yaohan (now Mitsuwa) supermarket, Japanese restaurants, a two-screen movie theater and bowling alley.

But customer traffic began to dwindle as Los Angeles fell into a recession in the early 1990s, and the riots of 1992 scared off many visitors to downtown Los Angeles. Japan's economic problems also cut the flow of once big-spending Japanese tourists into Little Tokyo. The theater and bowling alley are long gone, and several other store spaces in the mall are vacant.

The recent seller was Los Angeles developer Richard Meruelo, who bought the mall for less than $20 million in 2000 from a Japanese lender. He could not be reached for comment Friday.

Last year the Kyoto Grand Hotel and Gardens, formerly known as the New Otani, and the outdoor Japanese Village Plaza were also sold. Both have retained their Japanese themes, but rapid changes in the district, including the arrival of many non-Japanese residents, have created anxiety.

"The whole demographic of Little Tokyo will change," Chris Komai, spokesman for the Japanese American National Museum, said in an interview last year.

Watanabe of the Little Tokyo Service Center said he knew the new owners had to make tough financial decisions but he hoped to talk to them about how they could fit into the 125-year-old ethnic neighborhood.

"We are not saying don't come, you are not welcome," he said. "We are saying let's sit down and talk about what is good for your community and good for your business."

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roger.vincent@latimes.com

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Times staff writer Teresa Watanabe contributed to this report.

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