Hope springs anew for 'Citizen's Square'

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Hope springs anew for 'Citizen's Square'

"This project is essential if we are to create a humanistic and nature-friendly downtown Seoul."

"It will worsen our quality of life by causing serious traffic problems in downtown Seoul."

The two quotes above sum up the arguments over whether to create a large plaza in front of Seoul's City Hall. In a recent workshop on the subject hosted by the city's think tank, the participants took firm and vocal opinions; but the gulf between their positions was wide, and the matter is so important to the future of the city that neither side was very willing to compromise.

The Seoul metropolitan government is tilting toward implementing what would be Citizen's Square, in accordance with a pledge made by the recently elected mayor, Lee Myeong-bak. The deputy mayor, Choi Jae-bum, said, "The basic policy for creating the square has been set, and we are in the process of drawing up measures that would lessen its negative effects."

The city government has made a move to speed up the process. Next week it will activate a committee to promote the plan. The Citizen's Square Promotion Committee will be headed by a former professor of Hanyang University, Gang Byeong-gi, who now heads a civic group called the Citizen's Solidarity for a Sustainable City. The metropolitan government has already earmarked 400 million won ($340,000) to cover costs to design the interior of the square, and has outsourced the designs to improve traffic flow to the think tank, the Seoul Development Institute.

But many parties oppose the plan. In particular, the National Police Agency says that squeezing out traffic from the big intersection in front of City Hall will significantly worsen it in surrounding areas. Shopkeepers in the area, especially those who work the underground shopping districts around City Hall, are worried that fewer cars passing through would mean shrunken sales.

The area in question comprises about 14,850 square meters. The grounds were used during Korea's World Cup matches as a huge cheering section for hundreds of thousands of fans of the national team, who watched the games on big monitors installed for the occasion. The communal sentiment stirred up by the games has given momentum to the plan to keep traffic out of the square permanently, making it easier for large groups of people to gather there for festivals. The proponents also hope that the square would become the cultural heart of the city, with its proximity to museums and palaces and other places of interest.

Of course, a plan to set aside a large square in the center of a city for pedestrian use only is nothing new. Vienna has a square in front of its city hall that is used for outdoor concerts; Paris has a square that is used as an ice skating rink during the winter. Here in Korea, areas adjacent to the city halls in Busan and Bucheon are used to screen movies during film festivals.

Included in Seoul's project would probably be an underground shopping center or cultural passageway. Kim Yeong-gul, part of Seoul's transportation planning team, said, "We are assessing the formation of a shopping and cultural boulevard in the underground area and constructing escalators for easy access to the main square." A professor of architecture and urban planning at Seoul University who favors the plan, Cho Gyeong-jin, says the square would draw more, not less shoppers to the area.

But critics say the plan for the park is somewhat self-defeating. If the square were equipped with benches, fountains, trees and other objects it would be difficult to be used in the way it was during the World Cup, they say. And the square could also become a magnet for the homeless. Some say the roads should be closed only during public holidays and other special occasions.

If the area is converted to a square, the traffic flow would probably go around the perimeter of the area in a single direction. Critics say that under any of the plans, nasty traffic jams would be the result.

The roads in front of Seoul's City Hall are the main arteries for the city's traffic. The interchange links seven major roads which converge in three main intersections. "The square in front of City Hall is the busiest intersection in Seoul, and is used by 230,000 cars every day," said Gwon Jin-yong at the Seoul Police Agency. "Eliminating roads and adding traffic lights would have enormous consequences." Mr. Gwon said before any plan is approved a lengthy study on its traffic repercussions should be conducted.

Some argue that the construction of the square would necessitate substantial modifications to the courses of three major roads: Sejong-no, Taepyeong-no and Cheonggaecheon-no. But because the roads come together in such a tight space, there's not much room to adjust the flow of traffic, because shifting the course of one road invariably affects most of the others. In one of the proposals for the square, cars on the Taepyeong-no road would find themselves facing a series of left turns at traffic lights every 200 meters -- not a pleasant prospect.

But the staunchest optimists of the project say that it would actually improve the flow of traffic downtown. They claim that the intersection in front of City Hall causes "imaginary demand" to pass through the area, or a funnel that all drivers assume they'll have to pass through on the way to somewhere else.

A professor of real estate at Suwon University, Lee Won-yeong, says that drivers who do not actually need to pass through the City Hall junction make up between 10 percent and 20 percent of the intersection's total traffic.

"In order to get rid of such unnecessary and unwanted foam," Mr. Lee said, "the city should go ahead with the large square; it would make the flow of traffic in the area more sustainable."


Past plans to get cars out of the area went nowhere

Experts and public officials like to point out that the idea to make a people-friendly square in front of City Hall is old news. Plenty of civic groups in the past have demanded the "return of the square to pedestrians, after it had been forfeited to automobile drivers." The Seoul Metropolitan government has been wrangling over the issue since 1983, and has treated it as a top priority on a few occasions.

In 1983, as Seoul was preparing for the 1988 Olympics, the city considered creating a large square in front of City Hall under a plan called the "main road planning and city design project." This scheme would have blocked the way that cars go to get from Mugyo-dong to Taepyeong-no, in the direction of Gwanghwamun, and used that part of the road as a city square. This was a realistic plan; much of the traffic passing through the junction would have been unaffected.

But because of the political unrest of the period, the government was wary of creating an area that could be used for demonstrations. So the project was dropped.

In 1995, when there was talk of moving City Hall to a different location, the city square issue was getting a lot of attention. At that time, the primary plan was to have the square stretch from the Plaza Hotel to reach the Korea Press Center and the Kolon building. The plan of purchasing all the privately owned buildings in that area was also pursued, but the idea was trashed when the plan to move City Hall was scrapped.

In 1999, the construction division at the Seoul city government put together and sponsored a plan called the Creating the Citizen's Square Project. The plan the city is leaning toward now shares a lot of similarities with this design. It meant getting rid of old, shabby buildings behind City Hall and using the space as an alternative road. The biggest obstacle to the plan was the burden of pulling down buildings in the period after the economic crisis -- the socioeconomic atmosphere was unconducive to the plan. An official involved with the plan said, "The mayor at the time could not decide on the issue, so we let it fade."

A year later, the Seoul city government tore down some of the walls near City Hall to create an area for pedestrians to relax, but it wasn't enough to satisfy the committed backers of the plan for a square.


Want a great square? It won't come cheap

By Lee Chul-ho

JoongAng Ilbo

If a pedestrian-only square were built in front of City Hall, most of the traffic coming into the area would circulate on one-way roads, according to the proposals getting the most attention. The basic principle would be a large circular road surrounding the City Hall building and the square, with traffic flowing in a counterclockwise direction.

The director of city taffic research at the Seoul Development Institute, Kim Gyeong-chul, is one of the proponents who says the project would improve traffic flow. "Simulations showed that one-way roads would speed the traffic moving in the area by 2.2 kilometers per hour, to an average of 31.1 kilometers per hour," Mr. Kim said. "It would also be more convenient for pedestrians because of shorter waits at stoplights."

The first of the two main plans for linking the periphery roads is to create a traffic circle that goes in front of the Plaza Hotel and back around the rear of City Hall. The second would clear the area in front of the Plaza Hotel of traffic, diverting it to the road behind the hotel, and keep the road behind City Hall a two-way street.

The second option, while being the most aesthetically appealing, would require the purchase of the Plaza Hotel and the Korea Press Center by the city, making it extremely costly.

The city government seems to be tilted toward the first option; the city has already begun to buy buildings within the area, and has made plans to tear down facilities behind City Hall deemed unnecessary.

Insiders say the road work of the first option would be up to 3.4 billion won cheaper to carry out than the second's. Choi Jae-bum, the deputy mayor, said he was pleased with both options after running preliminary tests on traffic impacts. The effects on nearby areas would be manageable, he says, resulting in traffic increases of 5 percent for Gwanghwamun, 20 percent for Namdaemun and 12 percent for Seoul Station. Areas such as Seosomun, Uljiro and Sogong-dong would be prone to backups, but flow on Taepyeong-no would improve, he said.

Some critics of the plan say that the city needs to devise a master plan for its traffic before it goes ahead with the creation of the park. Baek Nam-chul, a senior researcher at the Korea Institute of Construction Technology, says the proposals would only address minor improvements around the City Hall district, and would move away the traffic to the outskirts, worsening conditions in those areas.

"These plans need to be made with a mind to other issues," Mr. Baek said, "such as expanding alternative means of transportation and limiting parking in the metro area, which will keep excess traffic out of downtown." newsty@joongang.co.kr

by Lee Ji-young

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