Built-from-scratch Songdo starts coming to life


Dec 18,2012
The I-Tower, new home to the secretariat of the UN Green Climate Fund, dubbed the World Bank of the environment, gleams as the sun sets over Songdo International Business District in Incheon on Wednesday. By Park Sang-moon

SONGDO, Incheon - Gazing down from the garden deck on the 29th floor of the I-Tower, the signature building of the built-from-scratch city of Songdo, it’s easy to see why developers can’t pinpoint one city that was their inspiration.

A park in the midst of skyscrapers looks a bit like Midtown Manhattan. The Songdo Convensia Conference Center is reminiscent of Sydney’s Opera House. Songdo’s canals, running into the Yellow Sea, give a Venetian feel, and boulevards with cafes are a cross between Paris and Gangnam, southern Seoul.

Twelve years in the making and three years after its official opening, the $35 billion city, located in the Incheon Free Economic Zone (IFEZ), is finally coming together.

A golf course designed by Jack Nicklaus is in full swing, three hotels have opened including the five-star Sheraton Incheon. An international elementary and high school is operating, so is a branch of the State University of New York, and many more schools are on the way.

And next year, some key tenants move into their new Songdo homes. The United Nations Green Climate Fund (GCF), dubbed the World Bank of the environment, announced in October that it had chosen Songdo as its headquarters over such stiff competitors as Geneva and Bonn. One of the reasons it chose Songdo is because it is a city built to be eco-friendly from its inception. Another is that Incheon offered the GCF seven floors in the I-Tower for free.

Once the hundreds of families of GCF employees move to Korea, the core population of Songdo will be in place.

The organizers of the Songdo International Business District want it to become the “gateway to Northeast Asia” and a “ubiquitous, smart city.” “We envision Songdo to grow into a global Asian city like Hong Kong or Singapore,” says a spokesman for the Incheon Free Economic Zone. Songdo is also frequently compared to Pudong, the financial hub in Shanghai built on farmland, and Eco City Hamburg in Germany or Gothenburg’s Super Sustainable City in Sweden.

Scott Summers, vice president of design and construction at Gale International, the master planner of the project and majority stake owner, called Songdo “a blank canvas to work on.”

“Before attracting the GCF, there was a lot of criticism for constructing a building that did not have set tenants,” said Jang Yun-seob, vice president of Daewoo E&C’s Songdo I-Tower Project.

But basically, that’s the history of Songdo itself. Its developers hoped that if they built it, tenants would come.

Long in the making

The project was initiated by the Kim Dae-jung administration to develop 1,500 acres of unused land and make an international business hub.

“This area was just undeveloped mud flats even five years ago,” said Lee Jin-baek, 30, a resident of Songdo. “I went to study abroad for five years, and when I returned, everything had changed. New buildings seem to sprout up every day.”

Gale International has a 70 percent stake in the project with Morgan Stanley Real Estate. The remaining shares are shared by Posco Engineering and Construction, Incheon Free Economic Zone and other investors.

Over 100 spanking new buildings are complete. Towering over other structures in the area is the 68-story Northeast Asia Trade Tower, currently the tallest building in Korea.

Songdo boasted a population of 60,377 as of the end of November, according to the IFEZ, up from 30,000 at its official opening in May 2009 and 40,000 a year ago. There are currently 927 foreign residents, not a particularly impressive number. But a decade ago, there were nearly none. The Songdo Global University Campus, the education center, opened its doors this year.

Songdo’s proximity to Incheon International Airport - connected by the new 21-kilometer (13-mile) Incheon Grand Bridge - is a major draw for foreigners who travel a lot. It is just seven miles from Incheon International Airport, or a 15 to 30 minute drive depending on traffic.

An eco-friendly home

The UN Climate Change Conference in Doha, Qatar, last week ratified the decision to base its Green Climate Fund’s headquarters in Korea. Final details on the move will be decided next March in Berlin. The announcement that Songdo won the bid came on Oct. 20.

The GCF was launched in 2011 at the UN Climate Change Conference in South Africa with the aim of assisting developing nations become greener. Korea, with the environmental emphasis by the President Lee Myung-bak administration, including the establishment of the Global Green Growth Institute this year, was a choice candidate to be home to the fund. In addition, Songdo was from the start supposed to be eco-friendly.

Nearly two months after the news that Songdo won the bid, the buzz has not quite yet died down locally. Banners for the GCF are seen throughout the city. Even “Gangnam Style” star Psy last month released a congratulatory video.

Park Jae-wan, minister of strategy and finance, compared the economic consequences of the GCF secretariat opening in Songdo to a large international company coming to Korea.

The Korea Development Institute estimated economic benefits worth 380 billion won ($354 million) a year once the number of the fund’s foreign employees in Korea reaches 500.

The GCF is expected to bring in a permanent staff of several hundred in the initial phases. The IFEZ estimates that number to reach thousands in the long run.

The 33-story I-Tower, or seven floors of it, will be home to the GCF. Several other floors are being allocated to UN organs such as ESCAP (Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific). More floors are reserved as headquarters for the Incheon Economic Free Zone.

“We put a lot of thought into the design of the building to make it functional as well as a landmark,” said Jang of Daewoo E&C. The I-Tower is especially recognizable by the wedge cut from the top of the building, creating the “Sky Garden,” where office workers can take a coffee or cigarette break and enjoy a 270-degree view of the new city.

“Such a design would never be approved for a regular office building,” stated Jang, “because this area could all be used as office space.”

But UN officials were impressed when they visited the building in their mission to find a home for the GCF, Jang said, especially “the fact that there was an empty, new building, essentially ready for their use.”

The building cost 185 billion won to construct and is set to open in February. The GCF is expected to move into the building as early as June.

“The ‘I’ in I-Tower, can signify many different ideas, including Incheon, international and intellectual,” said Kim Se-hoon, deputy general manager of the Songdo I-Tower.

Real estate boom

Songdo’s residential area, which is downtown, is reminiscent of the posh and elegant Gangnam District of southern Seoul with pretty cafes, fancy brand-name shops and pubs popular with the foreign community.

The downtown residential area, unlike the office towers elsewhere in the city, is already bustling with life.

Real estate agents say that since Songdo won the bid to be home to the GCF, over 1,000 new apartments have been sold.

But not all apartments have increased in price and an analyst reported last week that Songdo apartment prices have in fact dropped over the course of a month by 0.99 percent.

Green leisure

The city is designed for leisure with a 100-acre Central Park for strolls, the ocean to the west, and hiking on Mount Cheongnyang.

The 228-acre, 18-hole Jack Nicklaus Golf Club Korea opened in 2010. It has already hosted a PGA Championship Tour.

Biking is the recommended way to commute in the city, which offers spacious bike roads. In the artificial canal that passes through Songdo’s Central Park you can kayak, canoe or take water taxis.

The five-star hotel Sheraton Incheon Hotel located next to the Songdo Convensia Convention Center was named last week the World’s Leading Green Hotel at the 2012 World Travel Awards. Other hotels also within walking distance of the I-Tower are the 300-room Best Western Premier Songdo Park Hotel and the 241-room Benikea Premier Songdo Bridge Hotel, which resembles a sailboat.

Some of the planners’ ambitious projects have floundered while other have been revived in the wake of the GCF announcement.

One project that was stalled because of finances was the 105,000 square meter (25.9 acre) Incheon Art Center. Incheon says it plans to open the center to coincide with the 2014 Asian Games in Incheon.

By Sarah Kim [sarahkim@joongang.co.kr]

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