And a river runs through it

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And a river runs through it

It has been a little more than two weeks since Lee Myung-bak -- once a heroic corporate figure with Hyundai Engineering and Construction Co. -- was elected mayor of Seoul. With Mr. Lee's election comes his controversial political agenda, including the restoration of a stream north of the Han River, covered 40 years ago as part of Korea's breakneck development.

Cheonggyecheon was once an 84-meter-wide river lined with secondhand shops that wound along Jongno 3-ga in central Seoul and through Dongdaemun district. But over the years, it devolved into little more than a noxious sludge pit.

From 1958 to 1978, the eyesore (and nose-sore) was gradually covered with concrete. Instead of a river, the government built the Sam-il Expressway, one of Korea's symbols of modernity.

The restoration of the Cheonggyecheon is part of Mr. Lee's ambitious strategy to develop the north of the Han River into Seoul's economic, cultural and environmental center, to equalize the area with the richer, younger region south of the river. Since Mr. Lee's inauguration, the restoration project has quickly caught attention of the city's environmental activists, landowners and construction mavens, who will profit most from the new mayor's ambitions.

Among the city officials and urban planners, however, a controversy lingers as details of the plan are unveiled. Some feel his plans are too simplistic and expensive, and will create too many traffic nightmares.

Mr. Lee has suggested the two main operations for the restoration: First, tear down the Cheonggyecheon Expressway; second, revitalize the ecosystem by restoring the original river.?

Some see these steps as a recipe for chaos. When Sungsoo Grand Bridge collapsed in 1994, the cost incurred by traffic congestion in Seoul amounted to 2 trillion won ($1.6 billion). Specialists expect that the damage from removing the Cheonggye Elevated Highway, the preferred route of 120,000 cars to and from downtown every day, would be four times greater.

Even if the project proceeds, the losing mayoral candidate Kim Min-seok says it is almost impossible to complete the restoration within Mr. Lee's five-year term of office. After all, the original construction took a good 20 years.

The question also arises about compensation for the merchants and landowners who dwell in this area. There are about 300,000 stores throughout the district of Cheonggyecheon. If the restoration is to have any chance, the merchants must consent to the government plan. But the precedents in similar attempts in other neighborhoods suggests bitterness and division are much more likely.

Five years ago, when the Se-un Commercial Quarter in Cheonggyecheon became the hot subject of a major redevelopment plan, the failure to find acceptable compensation between the government and the store owners there was one of the main reasons the project failed. Considering that the city government could not afford 3 trillion won for a few thousand stores in 1997, merchants in the area are already confident that Mr. Lee's proposals are doomed.

Mr. Lee has attempted to convince the merchants that tearing down the expressway will not significantly hurt their business by saying the city will install a temporary fence around the overhead during the construction. But few have faith in such a strategy. "Who would guarantee our living while the construction is going on?" asks Go Su-cheol, a 54-year-old dealer in secondhand machinery parts in the Cheonggyecheon area. "Until the place is fully restored, business here will be fruitless."

Mr. Go's sentiments are common in the area. Many merchants doubt that even if the area turns into a posh commercial quarter with modern high-rise buildings like the present Gangnam that they would be able to afford the correspondingly higher rents.

This is not the first time that many Cheonggyecheon retailers have been the victims of the city's ambitious redevelopment plans. The most recent two high-rises to the area, the Bretante Department Store and Hanhwa Building, were built to improve the neighborhood's image. But the long construction period only hurt business, and in the process the buildings replaced the small printing shops and antique stores once frequent in the district. Lee Myung-hoon, a 60-year-old merchant who has been working in Cheonggyecheon for 30 years says, "There is no type of business here that can go into office buildings. Even if there were, we are not in a position to afford the expensive leases."

The need to renovate the Cheonggye Expressway is certain, even if how to do so is still hotly debated. For years the city has warned against driving on the dangerous and disintegrating road. Vehicles over 12 tons and all trucks have already been banned and Mr. Lee has said the road is in "potential danger of major collapse."

According to an employee at the Sungdong Road Managing Corp., which is responsible for the maintenance of the Cheonggye Overpass, partial repair work takes place on the road year-round, but still, its life span is limited.

Could the river that has been paved for more than 40 years be restored into the same river where old Korean wives used to do laundry? If so, how could it be done and who would gain from such a major project plan?

If the restoration is successfully completed, Mr. Lee will earn well-deserved fame for his work as mayor. If it fails, however, he will go down in history as another reckless city official who wasted the citizens' taxes on yet another government boondoggle.

by Park Soo-mee

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