Seoul Plaza showcases Korean retailers

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Since the early 1990s, the Asian commercial community has Flushing has been expanding as new waves of immigrants flex their entrepreneurial muscle. In the downtown district, for instance, many Korean-American shop owners who had leased space from Taiwanese-Americans have headed east in Queens, seeking lower rents.

But there are exceptions. One is the Seoul Plaza on Northern Boulevard, a high-end collection of shops which held its grand opening Dec. 14.

SK New York, Inc., a 5-year-old real estate developer based in Korea, invested $22 million in the five-story building that wraps around Northern Boulevard and 150th Place, said David Mun, general manager of Seoul Plaza. SK New York purchased the land in late 1996, but the project was not completed until recently after the company encountered overseas financial obstacles that stymied its construction, Mun said.

"Right now," he said, "it's showing a very good response."

Seoul Plaza currently has 22 tenants, some of which offer high-end merchandise like name-brand bags, clothes and cosmetics. On the lower-level of the mall, the stores gear their goods more toward teenagers than adults, selling accessories branded with the popular Hello Kitty or Pekkle characters, two personalities in Japanese popular culture.

Earning the rights to open a store in Seoul Plaza was indeed competitive. There were 17 businesses, many with their roots in Manhattan, vying for each of the 22 retail spaces, Mun said. And businesses that won out were required to sign their leases in 1998.

Also in the plaza is a restaurant that serves Korean and Japanese cuisine as well as a banquet hall that can seat upwards of 600 people. The banquet hall, the Crystal Ballroom, was rented out on Jan. 24 for a Lunar New Year festival held by a coalition of Korean- and Taiwanese-Americans, an event attended by 600 people.

In the last decade, as leases held by Korean-American businesses expired, more Koreans began to settle eastward. It's unusual, Mun notes, for Korean-Americans to own the property on which their businesses are operated. And in that regard, Seoul Plaza is a sort of trailblazer, Mun said.

"Maybe it'll become the flagship of the Korean community," he said. "Maybe it's the first step in forming a Korean town."

As executive director of the Korean American Association of Flushing, Kwang Kim has tracked the altering landscape of Asian businesses in Flushing.

"Most of the Korean stores are going to Northern Boulevard," Kim said. "Rent is really high [in downtown Flushing], and a lot of Chinese from mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan bring money with them. But Koreans are a little different. They don't bring a lot of money here."

The rent along Northern Boulevard, Kim said, tends to be cheaper than in downtown Flushing. Apart from that, though, the very nature of Northern Boulevard offers something that Main Street does not.

"Northern Boulevard is one of the major roads," Mun said. "Wherever you go, you have to pass through this road."

Reach reporter Chris Fuchs by e-mail at Timesledgr@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 156.

Posted 7:02 pm, October 10, 2011
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