Byline: Jon Davis Daily Herald Staff Writer
On a sunny April afternoon, Chang Song plies his trade as grocer to the Northwest suburban Korean community.
Walking around Song Do Market in Arlington Heights, he says he'd like to remodel his 5 1/2-year-old store and update the frozen food coolers.
Several doors down, Kim Joo talks about HerbLand, a three-month- old health and vitamin store, and notes the concentration of businesses at the International Plaza shopping center that are owned by or cater to the area's Koreans and Japanese residents.
The mall, 120-388 E. Golf Road in Arlington Heights, is the only point between Golf Mill in Niles and the shopping malls of Schaumburg for suburban Asians to browse and shop, Kim says.
"They are gathered in one shopping mall here," he said. "It's one-stop shopping here. You can get groceries, your nails done and eat. Think of the time and energy saved."
Given the upswing in the area's Korean population in the past 12 years, that's a lot of time and energy. Just as German immigrants did in the 19th century, Koreans are coming to the Northwest suburbs from Chicago or, like Song, straight to the suburbs from the homeland on the word of relatives already here.
The 2000 census revealed the Northwest suburbs' Korean community grew 76 percent - from 5,219 people counted in the 1990 census to 9,197 counted in 2000.
And as they came, International Plaza increasingly became a local version of any urban ethnic neighborhood: a commercial nexus of shops, restaurants, beauty salons, video rental stores, karaoke bars, goods and services all available to newcomers in a familiar language from familiar faces.
Despite the rosy demographic outlook, Song and Kim are worried. And they're not alone in pondering their mercantile fates as tenants in International Plaza.
The problem is a village development plan that makes the 14-acre shopping center the heart of a 24-acre tax increment financing district. A tax increment financing district, or TIF, freezes property tax payments to local governments while extra revenue collected from owners after redevelopment is used to pay for improvements.
The plan comes before Arlington Heights' Redevelopment Commission in just six days, and many fear it might lead to the plaza being torn down for redevelopment, forcing tenants to start anew elsewhere.
The landlocked village sees the northeast corner of Arlington Heights and Golf roads as both a major gateway traversed daily by more than 67,000 drivers and an underproducing slice of valuable real estate that could and should be generating much more revenue.
But plaza tenants see the TIF plan as a threat to their businesses, an insult to their success and the source of much anxiety.
"I just work, work, work, seven days a week. I could lose my dream," Song said.
The Korean merchants and other tenants of International Plaza generally agree with the village's goal of stimulating the economic health of the corner, which is fronted by an abandoned gas station, a Japanese restaurant and a barely visible strip mall called Arlin- Golf Plaza.
They acknowledge International Plaza has a troubled past, but they say it no longer qualifies for inclusion in a TIF district because it has turned the corner and is doing fine now.
Rumors abound and information is in short supply, said Yong Myong, owner of Proline Golf, 268 E. Golf Road, which opened about 4 1/2 years ago.
Myong said a TIF district would have made sense three or four years ago, when there were problems with vacancies and the property's value decreased during an otherwise hot real estate market.
"Right now it's 95 percent full, so do we need to go in that direction?" Myong said.
Kim agreed. "Most tenants don't like the development plan."