Seoullo 7017: Mayor Park’s Cheonggye project
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.