High-rise headaches

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High-rise headaches

It seems like every time you get up in the morning, the skyline of Seoul has changed again. Change is the only constant in this city of endless construction and reconstruction.

From time to time, giant placards on the side of perfectly fine-looking apartment buildings "celebrate" the buildings' imminent demolition and re-establishment. "Except for Seoul, I've never seen people boast that their houses are old enough to be demolished," says Al Howard, 59, a Canadian English-language lecturer who teaches in the southern part of the capital.

These days, "dual-purpose buildings," which can be used for both commerce and housing, are springing up like so many mushrooms after a rain. But Seoul's infrastructure -- roads, parking, schools and so forth -- isn't keeping pace.

Here are three representative areas in Seoul suffering from random and excessive construction.


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The skyline of Seoul is a mess," says Kim Ki-ho, a professor at the Graduate School of Environmental Studies at Seoul National University. "It's a result of the careless development policies of the central government and the Seoul metropolitan government during the last 10 years."

In particular, the rise of dual-purpose buildings and officetels (buildings whose units can be used for business or for living) has brought heavy population growth to commercial areas and other parts of Seoul that city planners never counted on. These buildings are especially popular with builders because they are considered more profitable -- residential construction is less sensitive to economic fluctuations than offices, but commercial building requirements raise prices.

However, the random construction of dual-purpose buildings, without consideration of infrastructure needs, is bringing about serious traffic problems.

Yongho road, which crosses Yeouido Island in the heart of Seoul, is notorious for its chronic traffic congestion. During the busiest times of the day, it can take more than one hour to travel 1 kilometer. And it's going to get worse.

By 2005, seven dual-purpose buildings, each between 35 and 41 stories tall, will be built along Yongho road in Yeouido, bringing in 1,300 new households and their cars.

According to reports submitted to the Seoul city government by those constructing the dual-purpose buildings, the average traffic speed in Yeouido during the rush hour ranges from 12 to 25 kilometers per hour. But once all the new housing is in place, that rate is expected to drop by half.

In the early 1990s, the government began to permit the construction of dual-purpose buildings in commercial districts in order to allow people to live close to their offices. Government officials thought that reducing the number of commuters would reduce traffic congestion and help keep the downtown core well-populated even after business hours. But the results are far from the government's intention.

Another aspect no one predicted was the rise of upscale housing. "The area of most dual-purpose apartments in Yeouido exceeds 165 square meters," says An Sang-u, 37, a licensed real estate agent. "The smallest units of 125 square meters sell for at least 500 million won [$455,000]. ... Those kinds of units are simply unrealizable for most white-color workers in their 30s and 40s."

In effect, many commercial districts are turning into luxury housing areas, says Kwon Young-duk at the Seoul Development Institute, a research institute. "The authorities should examine the actual use of all the buildings in commercial districts," he says, "and apply height limits according to their actual use." He also recommends that the authorities should collect part of the dual-purpose building contractors' revenues for building schools or working on traffic problems.

Mok-dong, in the west-Seoul Yangcheon district, was once a well-planned area, with sufficient infrastructure for the low density apartments there. But the random development of dual-purpose buildings in its commercial district is ruining the area. By 2005, 29 dual-purpose buildings ranging from 15 to 69 floors will bring in about 7,400 households in the southern area of Mok-dong.

"The commercial district in Mok-dong is the most convenient area for residents," an official at the Seoul metropolitan government says. "But skyscrapers don't fit into our plans." Still, the Yangcheon office says everything is legal.

Legal, sure, but loose laws have caused some wrangling between the city office and ward offices. Zoning laws had no regulations on building heights in commercial districts when the Yangcheon office permitted the construction.

Accordingly, traffic problems in that region are getting worse. And, more seriously, so are school problems. Households in the Mok-dong dual-purpose buildings will add about 3,000 elementary, middle and high school students to the neighborhood. But there are no nearby schools. There are two elementary schools and one middle school in Sinjeong-dong, the closest neighborhood, but those schools already have more than 40 students per class and would be unable to accommodate more.

"If an apartment complex of 2,500 units is set up," says an official in the Yangcheon district office, "it must be reported to the Ministry of Education in advance so that schools also can be established. But there are no such regulations for dual-purpose buildings and officetels in commercial districts."

Another problem plaguing Seoul is the haphazard increase in high-rise shopping malls. The Dongdaemun area, Seoul's biggest shopping district, in the western downtown core is most notorious for this phenomenon.

Since the 1990s, about 10 high-rise shopping malls such as Migliore and Doosan towers have sprung up, greatly increasing the traffic and the "floating" population, that is, the number of people working, living and shopping in the area.

The floating population of Dongdaemun is often more than 1 million. There are 30,000 clothing stores and stalls scattered over 27 shopping centers. And more are being constructed. Because the government is trying to keep housing prices down, investment money is flowing out of the housing market and into retail. A solid, 15-story building that was built just 9 years ago has been demolished to make way for the construction of an even larger shopping mall.

Unlike other areas, Dongdaemun suffers from traffic congestion even after midnight because of all the clothing retailers coming from all over Korea to fill their trucks with goods from the market's wholesalers. According to a Seoul Development Institute survey, traffic speed along the main road in Dongdaemun is often less than 10 kilometers per hour.

Much like the dual-use buildings, the high-rise shopping malls also lack adequate infrastructure, especially access roads and parking. In the commercial districts in the center of Seoul, the construction of a building is easily permitted as long as it is less than six stories tall. And judging by the swath of new malls going up, permits can be easily found for taller buildings, too.

In addition, shopping malls bring about five times as much traffic as other office buildings. Due to the serious parking problems in this area, the Seoul government is considering building a parking lot underneath Dongdaemun Stadium.

While the land owners and builders make great profits from the reckless development of the Dongdaemun area, the clothes merchants suffer from overheated competition and consumers made unhappy by the poor traffic.

According to Seoul officials, the stores near Dongdaemun will expand to 50,000 by the end of next year. But at the same time, daily sales at the area's stores have plunged to 27 billion won from 40 billion won last year. "Careless construction is hurting the traffic and the business in this area," says Hong Taek-sun, the president of one Dongdaemun marketplace.
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