The Dream of Korea Town

You’ve probably heard of Greektown and Mexican Town, Detroit, but have you heard of Korea Town, Southfield? You probably haven’t, and with good reason. It doesn’t exist yet. It is currently a plan in the mind of Mr. Yong Yi of SLT Holdings, LLC. This plan is being realized quickly, however. “Phase 2” of Korea Town, Southfield is currently underway.

Along the corridor of I-696, west of Telegraph Road in Southfield, Michigan, the beginning of this dream already thrives. The New Seoul Plaza is a welcoming sight to any with a taste for Korean barbecue or desserts. It currently houses DAEBAK Korean Barbeque and Myomee Coffee & Dessert Café. While this plaza is a delightful oasis on its own, the restaurants were only phase 1 of Mr. Yi’s larger vision. The building is situated in a location brimming with possibilities. Those with a true love of Asian food and goods will be thrilled to hear what is coming next.

 The second phase of development features the construction of the New Seoul Market, a high-end Korean food market. This market will be situated directly east of the existing restaurants, creating the beginning of a community of properties. The land that New Seoul Market will sit on currently houses the vacant 9,440 square foot building of the former Copper Canyon Brewery, which went out of business in 2014. PM Environmental performed a Phase I Environmental Site Assessment and a Pre-Renovation Asbestos Containing Materials Survey to the property, and these revealed no cause for concern. SLT Holdings can safely proceed with renovation of the building and construction of the new market.

“Our goal for the market is for Koreans in the community to feel at home,” said Sarah Yi, daughter of Yong Yi and co-owner of SLT Holdings. “My parents came to the US when my dad was 14, and they never had a place where they could go out and bring guests to share in their culture. It makes us proud to see that the business is going well, and that what we strove to do is successful.” She went on to elaborate, “Young people these days are listening to K-pop and watching Korean dramas. They’re seeing Korean food on social media, and they can come to the restaurants and try it or go to the market and try making it themselves. It’s important for them to be aware of Korean food and culture and share that with their families. We didn’t expect the restaurants to be this successful, but we’re excited about where we are and where we’re going to expand.”

This new market will not be your average, run-of-the-mill grocery store. The developer has committed to integrating innovative design elements and eco-friendly features into the renovation. Garage door walls will be installed to create outdoor marketplace spaces and introduce fresh air flow in the warmer months. Sixteen existing parking spaces will be converted into green space for an outdoor seating amenity. A walking path, an outdoor art display, and a pagoda will be featured along the Northwestern Highway Service Drive. Multifunctional landscaping will be installed that will serve to reduce area stormwater and will include deciduous trees, shrubs, perennials, and ornamental grass beds. Four charging stations for electric vehicles will be installed in the parking lot. Refrigerated sections of the store will be equipped with Energy Star compliant refrigerators with French doors that maximize aisle access and efficiency. Hands-free fixtures and motion-sensor light switches will be installed to reduce touching surfaces and promote health and safety.

Inclusive design elements will provide various forms of accessibility for all people. Signage will incorporate easy-to-understand and see graphical icons with light on dark contrasts and will be bilingual, featuring both Korean and English. ADA guidelines and standards, as well as several safety elements will be incorporated, notably ground level, smooth and stair-free entrances, slip-resistant flooring and the use of energy-efficient LED light fixtures near walkways, entrances, and parking areas.

Currently, Southfield’s Asian community comprises approximately 2% of the city’s overall population. Over the past 10 years, the Asian inhabitants have migrated to other cities where Asian amenities are more readily available. The nearest Asian marketplace to Southfield is 20 miles away. One goal that the city has is to draw Asian residents back within the borders. The city is in full support of the New Seoul Market development, as it aligns with Southfield’s desire to grow the city’s Asian population by providing a destination for Asian residents. Proving this support, the city has recently approved the use of brownfield tax increment financing and will consider supporting a Commercial Rehabilitation Act tax abatement through Public Act 210 for at least 5 years. Phase 3 of the Korea Town, Southfield plan will further address the issue of attracting a new Asian segment into the city.

The locale of the Korea Town plan is well situated among several established businesses and institutions that would make for a synergistic dynamic. These establishments include a Greyhound bus station, a local US Post Office branch, Henry Ford Medical Center, Plante Moran, Congregation Saarey Zedek, and a direct connection to a major commercial retail hub along Telegraph Road. 

This third phase continues the vision to create an international placemaking destination where users can have an authentic experience. The vision for the third phase stems from the interaction between SLT Holdings and the Korean Trade-Investment Promotion Agency (KOTRA), a South Korean governmental organization. KOTRA’s goal is to facilitate partnerships between South Korean and American businesses in several sectors of retail and manufacturing, including automotive, software, beauty supply, and more. 

Phase 3 would involve the inclusion of a multipurpose commercial office and business incubation center. The center would offer extended stay business apartments for travelling Asian business professionals and capitalize on the interest that has already been expressed by Asian companies within automotive and manufacturing industries. These apartments would be designed specifically with the needs of these business professionals in mind, but also give them a slice of home in the form of shopping and dining amenities that are familiar and are designed to minimize the impact of culture shock.

“Southeastern Michigan, because of the auto industry, is an important area for manufacturing, suppliers, and engineering to set up and to make networking contacts with the ‘Big 3’,” said Rebecca Lazarus, business consultant for SLT Holdings. “Asians and Asian Pacific Islanders and have the highest percentage of their people working in STEM, at 23%. In a foreign country, you miss home. When you can eat foods you’re familiar with and go to places that look familiar, this is one way to feel like you belong and have an economic stake in the area. This plan would help grow not only Southfield, but also the industry.”

Sarah Yi added, “When you’re coming from Korea and you’re not from the area, you want to have some place to bring people and create more of a bond and show where you’re from. You can build a stronger working relationship by coming to the plaza and helping your professional contacts experience what daily life is like for you. We see a lot of business dinners here where professionals from different cultures learn about each other and grow together over learning how to enjoy Korean barbecue and have drinks.”

The realization of these plans would be not only a welcome addition for local consumers, but also catalyze economic growth for the city. This prime example of entrepreneurship would create at least 45 new jobs just in phase 2 and also attract regional and international consumers. The city of Southfield is ripe with possibilities, and this gem of Korean innovation may be just what it needs in order to revitalize.

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