Seoullo 7017: Mayor Park’s Cheong­gye project

The Korea Times - - OPINION - By Jon Dun­bar Jon Dun­bar is a con­tribut­ing writer and copy ed­i­tor at The Korea Times.

It’s been over a year since Seoul Sta­tion Over­pass closed to traf­fic and con­struc­tion work­ers co­cooned it to be­gin transformi­ng it in pri­vate.

In that time, most of us pass­ing un­der­neath have glanced up­ward, cu­ri­ous ex­actly what shape it will be re­turned to the pub­lic in. But our at­ten­tion must snap back to the ground, as the mas­sive in­ter­sec­tion un­der­neath has been a lo­gis­ti­cal night­mare fol­low­ing the clo­sure. At long last walls are com­ing down and we can see new con­nect­ing ramps and el­e­va­tors take shape.

Soon, it will re­open as Seoullo 7017, an el­e­vated city park fash­ioned af­ter New York’s High Line, of­fer­ing spec­tac­u­lar views of the area around Seoul Sta­tion and stretch­ing from Nam­dae­mun Mar­ket to Malli-dong.

But the plan has met with plenty of crit­i­cism, both from con­ser­va­tive politi­cians and from the busi­nesses on ei­ther side of the over­pass who face uncer­tain­ties with the in­fra­struc­ture changes.

Con­ser­va­tives ex­pressed their dis­plea­sure, claim­ing this project was Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon’s own van­ity project to run for pres­i­dent.

Per­haps they re­call van­ity projects by pre­vi­ous Seoul may­ors an­gling to run for pres­i­dent, such as Lee Myung-bak who en­tered Cheong Wa Dae by lever­ag­ing his own brain­child, Cheong­gye Stream.

That project cost 386 bil­lion won to de­mol­ish an ag­ing over­pass and day­light an old stream un­der­neath, turn­ing it into a gi­ant wa­ter foun­tain, all for a price al­most 90 times Mayor Park’s 4.3 bil­lion won bud­get for Seoullo. Now, over 10 years af­ter the project was com­pleted, Cheong­gye Stream is still cost­ing tax­pay­ers bil­lions of won per year and ris­ing.

Re­gard­less, the pub­lic has em­braced the city­wide elec­tric-pow­ered foun­tain, although swim­ming in its dirty pumped-in river wa­ter and sub­way tun­nel runoff, in­fested with al­gae, is not rec­om­mended. The world took no­tice, with Time mag­a­zine even nam­ing Lee “Hero of the En­vi­ron­ment” in 2007. Re­mov­ing the over­pass led to a para­dox­i­cal re­duc­tion in traf­fic — and I mean it: the term for this phe­nom­e­non is Braess’ Para­dox, and Cheong­gye Stream is of­ten up­held as the text­book ex­am­ple of Braess in prac­tice.

But the human cost of Cheong­gye Stream was nearly for­got­ten. The city govern­ment evicted a flea mar­ket es­tab­lished in the area of the stream.

Af­ter harsh po­lit­i­cal op­po­si­tion that some­times came to vi­o­lence, then-Mayor Lee al­lowed many of the evicted mar­keters to set up shop in Dong­dae­mun Sta­dium, where he said they could stay per­ma­nently and which he promised to trans­form into a world-class flea mar­ket fa­cil­ity.

Af­ter he as­cended to the pres­i­dency, his suc­ces­sor Mayor Oh Se-hoon de­cided his po­lit­i­cal ally Lee’s prom­ise was break­able, so he evicted the mar­keters from the sta­dium. In another vi­o­lent clash, hired goons were sent in to beat up the last hold­outs and drag them out forcibly. Oh failed to make it to Cheong Wa Dae, not even fin­ish­ing his full may­oral term, but in place of the sta­dium we are left with Dong­dae­mun De­sign Plaza... open­ing four years af­ter it was sup­posed to be com­plete.

In nei­ther case were the evictees’ rights and liveli­hoods con­sid­ered very sin­cerely. So when those mar­keters in Nam­dae­mun op­posed the clo­sure of the over­pass and the cre­ation of the park, sud­denly those same con­ser­va­tives — who pre­vi­ously ap­plauded the dou­ble-evic­tion of those un­for­tu­nate flea mar­keters — dared call Mayor Park’s plan con­tro­ver­sial.

But Seoullo 7017 is nearly com­plete and not a sin­gle drop of blood has been in­ten­tion­ally shed for this project to hap­pen. Not a sin­gle busi­ness has been evicted. No hired goons have been sent in to beat up un­co­op­er­a­tive vendors.

For a while, I thought this was man­u­fac­tured con­tro­versy, from the same peo­ple who tried to man­date govern­ment-writ­ten his­tory text­books, or the spies who ma­nip­u­lated pub­lic con­sen­sus dur­ing Park Geun-hye’s elec­tion cam­paign.

But the pains of the af­fected busi­nesses are real.

Back in 2015 I com­muted by scooter across the over­pass ev­ery day for three months. One day af­ter my scooter broke down in Nam­dae­mun, I had the chance to ac­com­pany a Malli-dong me­chanic in his truck over Seoul Sta­tion Over­pass. I re­marked about how its re­moval would hurt his busi­ness, and the pained look on his face was gen­uine. Later, he re­lo­cated his shop out­side the city.

The fin­ished Seoullo 7017 will cer­tainly breathe new life into the whole area, con­nect­ing Nam­dae­mun and Malli-dong to Seoul Sta­tion and bring­ing in more foot traf­fic. But prop­erty val­ues will in­evitably go up, and we will likely see fu­ture ill-ad­vised ur­ban re­newal projects in the area in an at­tempt to beau­tify or mon­e­tize the land and its build­ings.

We have seen other changes tak­ing place around the over­pass. From The Korea Times of­fice win­dows, we can see de­mo­li­tion ma­chin­ery tear­ing through an old com­mer­cial dis­trict filled with restau­rants, cafes, and seed­ier hole-in-the-wall es­tab­lish­ments. This area is lo­cated di­rectly be­tween Nam­dae­mun Gate and the over­pass, soon to be prime real es­tate.

An am­bi­tious plan threat­ens to con­vert Jung­nim-dong, on the west side of the over­pass, into a “sec­ond Insa-dong,” what­ever the hell that means.

The neigh­bors of the over­pass will have to raise their voices so their in­ter­ests won’t be ig­nored, as so bru­tally hap­pened with sim­i­lar may­oral van­ity projects of the pre­vi­ous decade.

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