One controversial developer is driving new housing construction in LA’s real estate hotspot.
On Brady Collins’ walk to work at Koreatown Immigrant Workers Alliance, he sees construction on almost every block.
“They’re big projects, too, that have hundreds of units,” said Collins, who is a policy analyst for KIWA.
Measure JJJ, which passed in 2016, incentivizes dense housing development in areas that are within half of a mile of major transit stops as long as they include a percentage of affordable housing units. For the 36,968 units approved under the measure since then, much of the construction is concentrated in Koreatown, which sees at least 20 bus lines and two major Metro Rail stops.
Like Collins, anyone walking around the neighborhood can see it is currently the prime location for real estate development in Los Angeles. However, not everyone is privy to the neighborhood’s open secret: One company is behind over half of the current housing projects.
“Jamison is the most prolific developer in Koreatown as of late for multifamily units,” said Kitty Wallace, senior executive vice president at the greater Los Angeles branch of Colliers, a real estate brokerage firm. Urbanize LA, a publication offering coverage on commercial real estate development, also refers to them as Koreatown’s largest property owner.
Jamison Properties was founded in 1995 by Dr. David Y. Lee, a first-generation immigrant from South Korea who now resides in Los Angeles. Lee is notorious for refusing interviews, leading Los Angeles Downtown News to dub him “The Quiet Tycoon.” Despite his aversion to the limelight, Lee’s company is one of the biggest commercial landlords in Southern California — and it’s well on its way to gaining that same level of power in the housing world as well.
Previously, much of the knowledge about Jamison was passed down through word of mouth or ethnic news sources.
“Everything I know has stemmed from an institution of knowledge [I have from] just simply being born and raised in this town,” said Dr. Eliza KimLy, who grew up in Koreatown. KimLy is the founding principal of Rise Kohyang Middle School, which is located in a Jamison building. “These are just things that you hear from your parents because it comes up in the Korean news or something like that.”
Over the course of four months, Knock LA gathered information from Koreatown residents, government documents, Los Angeles developers and community organizations to shed light on the company. How did they gain this level of ownership in Koreatown? Given their significant presence in the neighborhood, what is their impact on the residing communities?
For many in Koreatown, the story of Jamison begins three years prior to its founding. In 1992, Los Angeles was the site of civil unrest. Los Angeles Police Department’s violent attack on Rodney King and a Korean-American store owner’s murder of Latasha Harlins in South Central LA led to the Los Angeles uprising, which lasted six days. The estimated property damage amounted to over $1 billion, with Koreatown suffering disproportionate impact. Given the state of the neighborhood, property value depreciated, and numerous buildings changed hands afterward.
Many believe Jamison acquired much of the property they own on the Wilshire Corridor around this time. According to the California secretary of state records, Jamison established several LLCs for these Wilshire addresses around the late 1990s and early 2000s.
After filling out the necessary paperwork, Jamison left many of these buildings in disrepair.
“As a landlord, I think Jamison wasn’t interested in having high end office space throughout the ’90s and early 2000s,” said Collins. “They just wanted to hold on to the real estate until the neighborhood was in high demand and they knew they could turn a profit. … So now, a lot of the commercial properties along Wilshire Boulevard are being turned into condos and apartments.”
In a step that corroborates Collins’ perspective, Lee went on to found Jamison Services in 2006 to serve as the building arm for the original Jamison Properties, which would continue with acquisition, according to Los Angeles Downtown News.
After earning their bachelor’s and Juris Doctor degrees from USC, three out of Lee’s four children went on to support the expanding company, each handling a separate division. The children’s spouses became involved in the company as well, representing the company on law and construction fronts.
Still, Koreatown did not reach the high demand Collins referred to until 2016. The city of Los Angeles instituted Measure JJJ, which included the Transit Oriented Communities (TOC) Incentive Program. That year, Jamison Services was responsible for about one-fourth of the units permitted for construction in Los Angeles.
Although the guidelines under the TOC Incentive Program are intended to make housing more accessible for those in lower income brackets, the reality did not quite match this expectation. Based on its tier system, each new development must dedicate a certain percentage of their housing to Extremely Low Income levels, Very Low Income levels, and Lower Income levels.
However, the Department of Housing and Urban Development determined the brackets for these levels using the median income for a family of four, according to the LA Tenants Union. As a result, 40% of the affordable units that resulted from the TOC guidelines go to families making up to $83,500 per year — a number that is almost twice the $43,201 median household income for residents in Koreatown.
“We would ask how this development could serve a community with ~$24K per capita annual income,” said LA Tenants Union volunteer Anthony Carfello about one of Jamison’s more recent developments, Kurve on Wilshire. At Kurve, the cheapest apartments in the 23-floor luxury apartment building are available for lease starting at $2,315, which would cost $27,780 annually.
Moreover, according to the Census American Community Survey 2019 1-year estimate, 11% of the 52,815 housing units in Koreatown are vacant. This is 1.4 times more than the percentage of vacant units in the entire state of California.
“I feel like when you just put buildings and buildings with no thought to urban planning, that kind of destroys a lot of livability,” said Anne Kim, a former organizer for the Save Liberty Park initiative. “There has to be better planning, and better politicians in place that care about the community, not their pockets.”
Kim’s experiences around Liberty Park in 2018 color her perspective. Back then, Jamison planned on rebuilding their 3700 Wilshire Boulevard commercial property into a 36-floor mixed-use residential building, instead. This move would have eradicated the small grassy 2.5-acre area in front of the building, which was the only green space to exist between Windsor Square and Lafayette Park on the east and west sides of Koreatown.
After Kim used typical public avenues to oppose the project, including attending meetings and sending public comments via email, the situation came to a head when Lee threatened to use his AR-15 on anyone seeking to trespass on the park, which is technically his private property.
“The reason the park is still there is because of the words Dr. Lee used in a meeting at [10th District City Councilman] Herb Wesson’s office, in the conference room in front of Herb Wesson’s deputies,” said Annette van Duren, another organizer for Save Liberty Park. “Had he not used those words, we would have lost. One hundred percent we would have lost.”
The public nature of Lee’s comments ensured accountability; there was no way to sweep what he had said under the rug. The Los Angeles City Council deemed Liberty Park a historical monument due to its cultural significance in March 2018, thereby deflecting any threats to the park’s existence.
“It was the first time that the community of Koreans got involved,” said Kim. “I think they felt really powerful about it, saving something they truly believed was worthy for the community and the residents of the community.”
The events of Liberty Park seem to indicate that Lee has his own interests in mind over that of these residents. The barrage of one-star ratings on Jamison’s Yelp page certainly seem to agree; out of their 31 reviews, 30 rate them one star.
“There is an obvious lack of desire to provide any services to office floors and tenants,” said Yelp user T.C. in 2019. “This property management group is making millions off of their properties in LA County, so I’m assuming spending a tiny amount on actually cleaning the spaces shouldn’t be a big deal, but that assumption is obviously a naive one on my part.”
Still, Lee’s tendency to avoid the spotlight obscures any positive impact the company has on the residential community as well, according to the Koreatown Youth and Community Center.
“They don’t publicize it much,” said Steve Kang, the director of external affairs at KYCC. “But they do give significant amounts of community sponsorship to many community organizations like KYCC.”
Together, KYCC and Jamison work to beautify the city, from planting trees together to removing graffiti. The company has even sought input from the nonprofit organization on how they can be a better neighbor to Koreatown.
Further inquiries about Jamison’s philanthropic activities remained unanswered by its third-party private PR firm, DB&R Marketing Communications. DB&R president Bruce Beck refused any requests for interviews. However, when asked about the company’s influence in the neighborhood, Beck replied via email, “Yes, [Jamison has] considerable holdings in Koreatown, but that doesn’t give them any more influence than any other property holder in [the area].”
While the Koreatown community’s perspective toward Jamison ranges from T.C.’s anger to Kang’s appreciation, Beck’s words do strike a chord. Today, the company has nearly 2,000 multifamily units under management and 5,000 more in development, yet Jamison’s presence in Koreatown is simply symptomatic of a much larger issue involving far more players than just one company. If Jamison were no longer a part of the community, there are other developers that would continue taking advantage of Measure JJJ to construct inappropriate housing for the neighborhood. For this reason, many Koreatown residents believe the most effective solutions lie in policy change.
“I know a lot of people, especially young people, probably don’t necessarily vote for local officials, but I think it’s really important if you want to live in the city,” said KimLy. “LA is starting to develop, so I think there’s still time to get involved and really develop a sense of what you want to push for so that you can see it [come to] fruition within this next decade.”
Recently, residents of Koreatown made a push to be recognized as one district, which would allow their perspectives to be heard as one united community. Following the Los Angeles City Council Redistricting Commission’s unanimous approval in early December, the people of the neighborhood now have a unique opportunity to reshape zoning and planning in the area for the next 10 years — including future developments.
“We’re not saying development is bad,” said Kim. In fact, all sources agreed that more housing is a must for the community. On the contrary, “We just want conscious, better planning. Not so much about money in everyone’s pockets, but just doing the right thing.”
In 2022, the community has more power than ever to see the right thing through.
Correction: A previous version of this article erroneously stated that Latasha Harlins was killed in Koreatown. We regret the error.