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New Koreatown signage along Route 40 could be in Ellicott City by this fall, organizers say

The Koreatown Planning Committee Board has fundraised 90% of its goal for the new “Korean Way” signage scheduled to be erected on Route 40 in Ellicott City this fall.

The board, originally formed in summer 2019 to rebrand Koreatown in Ellicott City, has been fundraising for the past nearly two years for the installation of two traditional, Korean palace-style signs to replace the current “Korean Way” signage on either side of Route 40.

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The efforts are tentatively scheduled to come to fruition beginning Aug. 1 when the signage is set to arrive at the Port of Baltimore from Korea. Construction, which is set to take six weeks, will begin in August and finish in mid-September.

According to Soo Park, secretary general for the board, the funds for the project are coming from local business owners or residents. To date, the board has raised $480,000 of its $530,000 goal, which includes the estimated costs of maintenance for the next five to 10 years.

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“I can’t believe it’s actually happening. Then again, I want to see it in person before I can feel anything else. I’m anxious to see it,” Park said.

The board has been spearheading the project with necessary approval from the Maryland Department of Transportation’s State Highway Administration. Since the signage is on a state road, the county does not have jurisdiction over it, only the utilities that run below or above it.

The board, which has been meeting and discussing the plans for the past two years, is comprised of 15 members, including Howard County Executive Calvin Ball, who serves as honorary chair.

The current “Korean Way” signs were placed just west of Normandy Drive for westbound traffic and just east of Plum Tree Drive for eastbound traffic. The dedication of the signs that are currently there took place in December 2016.

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The new signage will be next to the shopping center at 9380 Baltimore National Pike on the westbound side and next to Victoria Plaza at 9339 Baltimore National Pike on the eastbound side.

The new “Korean Way” signage will have a Hanok style to them, according to Park. Los Angeles has a Koreatown with a similar sign, he said.

“That arch or the design itself is very popular in Korea. If you look at it, people say it’s a traditional Hanok,” Park said.

The signs are going to be precarved and sculpted by architects in Korea, using wood that is traditionally harvested from the oak trees there. Assembly is the only part of the process that will take place here. They will be 8 feet wide and 12 feet tall.

In January, members of the board presented the plans for the arches at a Howard County Council meeting. For many Howard residents, and even council members, that was the first they were hearing of the project.

Park said that presentation was crucial in outreach, letting the community know the project was on the way. He also said it was important in fact-checking some of the preconceived notions about the project, like the rumor that the signs would arch across Route 40.

The goal of the project, he said, is to bring more people to Koreatown and foster economic growth to the area.

“Korean Way” is a state-designated, 5-mile stretch along Baltimore National Pike that is home to approximately 166 Korean businesses. Asian American people account for 18% of Howard County’s population and nearly 7% of the state population.

“This is not about separating within a community; this is more of trying to bring more business to our community,” Park said.

Teri Soos, SHA engineer in District 7 where the “Korean Way” signage is located, said the coordination with the Koreatown Planning Committee Board began a few years ago.

Soos said the board approached the SHA about fundraising for the cost of what is classified by the state as “ornamental signage.” She said there’s a similar community sign, a monument to the 29th Infantry Division, at the median of Route 29 near Route 40.

“It’s always our preference that signage like this is placed on private property, but that wasn’t possible in this case,” Soos said. “We tend to reserve the right of way for highway uses, but we do understand this is a community.”

Soos said the SHA will check the safety of the highway with new signage, including looking at sightlines, ensuring it’s safe if someone were to leave the roadway, and assessing the location of the signage in comparison to utility, aboveground and underground lines.

Soos also said this was not a typical agreement, since the Koreatown Planning Committee Board would be bringing all the funds to the table, something that happens relatively infrequently.

“Right of way [community signage] is not common. We have to have the agreement for long-term maintenance, which most parties are not willing to enter in,” she said. “The agreement would be if [the signage] cannot be maintained for whatever reason ... that the State Highway [Administration] would remove the sign or the monument.”

At this point, Park said the only thing that could delay the tentative schedule is a delay from the Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. work that needs to be done where the signs are going up.

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