An architectural rendering of the Korean Community Center of Princeton’s proposed community center building, approved by the West Windsor Planning Board on Jan. 4.

No ground has been broken just yet, but the Korean Community Center of Greater Princeton on Meadow Road is moving forward.

On Jan. 4, the nonprofit Korean Community Center Foundation met a big goal when the West Windsor Planning Board approved its application.

“We held our 10th anniversary gala last fall and people were asking, are you really going to build a center?” said Dr. Jung Hi Lee, a member of the group of who initiated the project back in 2007. “We are pushing hard to have a groundbreaking this year.”

The 7,875-square-foot Korean Center will be on a site located adjacent to the Princeton Meadow Church, with two pre-existing homes sandwiched between the two sites. Numerous amenities are planned for the one-story center, including a 160-person multi-purpose hall, a conference room and lecture hall, as well as five classrooms. Programming will focus on Korean culture. The center will provide educational, social and health services for adults in the morning and evenings, as well as Saturday language classes for children.

Dr. Lee currently serves on the foundation’s board and is a member of the construction committee. A Pennington resident, Dr. Lee is a founding member, a status requiring a pledge of at least $5,000. He estimates there are 70 families who are founding members. This group largely consists of first-generation Korean immigrants to the U.S., as well as immigrants who are commonly referred to as the “1.5 generation”— those who grew up in Korea but arrived in America as teenagers.

“We are the first generation,” Dr. Lee said. “We at least have to leave something for future generations. The second generation is Americanized and spread all over. The Korean Center is a place for all to get together.”

Matthew Lee says he is “1.5 generation.” He arrived in Perth Amboy in 1976 as a child and moved to Plainsboro in 1986. He currently lives in West Windsor and is a securities trader who commutes to New York. His wife, Julia, works at home and teaches at the weekend Korean school. The school has been operating for 25 years and currently around 50 kids attend Saturday Korean language classes at the Kingston Presbyterian Church. They have two children at North.

“I remember all the farmland when I first moved to the area,” said Matthew Lee. “I moved here [to the U.S.] when I was 8 years old so at that time there wasn’t really a center to go to or to obtain any help. When I went to school I was the only Asian in my Catholic school. I really felt like an outsider. When you’re new to an area, what would your first step be? It seems logical and automatic, but for newcomers it’s at times daunting.”

Matthew’s parents emigrated to the U.S. to educate their kids. They arrived without knowing English and slowly grew their retail business.

“When I think about my parents, if they had a community, how easy would it have been to acclimate to the society and working environment. It was tough watching my parents survive in this country,” Matthew Lee said. “One major aspect is a sense of belonging, being a part of a community. Any one who moves here from a different state, let alone a different country, having an organization like KCCP would expedite someone integrating to society as well as contributing to the society.”

Dr. Jung Hi Lee, one of the founders of the Korean Community Center of Princeton, tends to watermelons in his home garden in Pennington.

Added Matthew Lee: “Any ethnicity who wishes to learn about Korea, it’s a center they can visit. KCCP itself is an organization and an evolving one that will acclimate to the surrounding society.”

He met Dr. Lee at their Korean Catholic congregation, and his family has since volunteered at KCCP events.

“The Korean community has been growing,” Matthew Lee said. “The largest immigrant groups are Indian and Chinese, but there has been a growing Korean presence. You have people moving here for jobs or for education like postgraduate programs. There are elderly moving over to join their child. Many move here with the plan to only stay for a few years and end up setting down roots.”

Dr. Lee estimates 5,000 Koreans live in the greater Princeton area. The first Korean Center built in New Jersey is located in Tenafly, and another in Edison was recently completed.

KCCP actually launched their project before the Edison group, but Dr. Lee says fundraising has been tight while the Edison project received support from a single ultra-wealthy patron.
“We have very limited resources,” Dr. Lee said. “At the beginning of the year, the founding families give $1,000. We have to save every penny. We are very proud that as an ethnic group we have gotten here.”

Aggregating funds from smaller donations has taken time and effort. The group has held off on expanding programming and services, instead choosing to save its resources to go towards the Korean center.

In 2011, the foundation purchased the 6.4-acre Meadow Road parcel from a group of Chinese owners for $580,000. The neighboring Princeton Meadow Church had previously owned the land as well.

A member of the foundation happened to spot the for sale sign, and luckily the property was not zoned residential but for research-office-recreation.

With planning board approval now in hand, construction costs for the one-story center are around $2.5 million. The foundation is currently in the midst of a $1 million fundraising drive. The group also expects to receive a $200,000 grant from the South Korean government’s Overseas Koreans Foundation, which will be disbursed once the building is nearing completion.

“We’ve discussed whether we would accept one big donor, but we would not want to name a whole building after someone in exchange,” Dr. Lee said. “We are considering naming opportunities for spaces within the building, like $50,000 for a classroom. Smaller amounts would be selling engraved bricks. We are thinking about all kinds of fundraising.”

Dr. Lee adds that the leadership and dedication of Yong Keun Joh and his wife, Sunny, the current board of trustees chair, have been invaluable. The Johs run the Somerset-based company Advanced Food Systems.

The foundation originally planned for a 10,000-square-foot center, before arriving at the current 7,785 footprint.

“In the beginning, we were daydreaming,” Dr. Lee said. “Everyone had big ideas, like a tennis and basketball court.”

A multiple-story building proved cost prohibitive, though an outdoor swimming pool and a solar array to mitigate electric costs are on a future wish list. Sports facilities were also planned, but the need to build their own is eliminated in light of the township’s new recreation areas at nearby Duck Pond Park.

“It’s a big site with room for expansion. That will be up for future generations,” said Dr. Lee, who retired in 2012.

A physician, Dr. Lee grew up in Daegu, the country’s fourth largest city, during the Korean War. His father was a farmer who supplied chicken hatchlings to other farmers, and his mother was a housewife.

“At that time all the chickens came from my house,” Dr. Lee said.

Jung Hi and Chunghee Lee in their Pennington garden.

He studied at Daegu’s Kyungpook National University School of Medicine, and after three years of compulsory military service he emigrated in 1975 through America’s Educational Commission for Foreign Medical Graduates. Dr. Lee says that the U.S. then had a shortage of doctors due to the Vietnam War.

He says he was drawn to America, having witnessed American support for Korea. Growing up, Dr. Lee encountered Americans during and after the Korean War, picking up English here and there. Before the civil war, Korea had been under Japanese occupation. When war broke out again in Korea, neighboring Japan, under American occupation, benefited economically, but Korea had to start from scratch once a ceasefire was reached.

Arriving in America, Dr. Lee worked at the Trenton Psychiatric Hospital, later specializing in internal medicine and opening a private practice in Ewing. He later resumed psychiatry at the New Jersey Ann Klein Forensic Center in Ewing, which is the only hospital in the state that oversees criminally insane inmates.

His wife, Chunghee, is also a psychiatrist. He has three children. His oldest daughter is a teacher in Philadelphia, another works as a conservationist for the Historical Society of New York, and his son is a physician, also in New York.

Now that he is retired, from April through October Dr. Lee spends nearly every day farming his two-acre lot in Pennington. The pear and chestnut trees he planted more than 30 years ago have borne fruit, and he harvests more vegetables than he can eat, giving away surplus to friends and family.

Dr. Lee envisions the Korean center as a space for the community. For 25 years he has organized a quarterly lecture series under the Korean Cultural Institute of Princeton, usually inviting Korean academics on sabbatical at one of the universities nearby. The lectures have been held at places like the municipal building and the University Medical Center.

The Korean center would serve as a central home of sorts for such regular activities, as well as special events like birthdays and weddings

“Some say with social media, why the need for physical space?” Dr. Lee said. “We really want to share Korean heritage and Korean people have been looking for space. I believe a community center can provide a lot of services, programs for the community.”