[VIEWPOINT]Hold off on building the new City Hall

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[VIEWPOINT]Hold off on building the new City Hall

Seoul Plaza in front of Seoul City Hall is heated with World Cup enthusiasm. This plaza was built with inspiration triggered by the mass cheering during the World Cup that Korea co-hosted with Japan four years ago. As the plaza became a popular festival venue for big and small events, we can now hardly recall that until only three years ago, this spot had been a busy downtown traffic circle.
But in four years, Seoul Plaza is expected to be transformed again, because new construction on Seoul City Hall is supposed to be done there.
Only parts of the facade of the existing building will remain, with a new building planned to be built behind the present building. Rising 21 floors from the ground with four floors underneath, it will have a total area of 89,100 square meters (959,064 square feet). The city has already selected a design proposal and a builder for the new building, on a turn-key contract basis. Lee Myung-bak, the outgoing Seoul mayor, was originally supposed to start the construction, but the schedule has been delayed, so the newly elected mayor, Oh Se-hoon, can take over the job.
A plaza becomes a different place as surrounding buildings change. A plaza can hardly play its role when its surroundings are open fields nor can it maintain its comfortable atmosphere when surrounded by buildings that are too high, giving it a closed feeling. European urban plazas that are renowned for their beauty display harmony between their size and the height of surrounding buildings.
The proposed new City Hall building with 21 floors above the ground will be too huge and imposing relative to the size of Seoul Plaza. Hotel buildings have already blocked the view to its south and if a 21-floor building is built to its north, Seoul Plaza will be dwarfed by big buildings to its north and south. The shape of the building in the design proposal greatly violates the principle that the heart of Seoul should be maintained within the four large city gates as a historical site with 600 years of history.
Construction of the new Seoul City Hall also became an issue in the recent mayoral election campaign. The candidate Kang Kum-sil contended that it should be moved to Yongsan, whereas the mayor-elect, Oh Se-hoon, promised to preserve the initial plan. The prospective location for the new building has been changed from Seocho to Yongsan for the past 20 years, but Mayor Lee Myung-bak has prevailed with the plan to build the new City Hall in the present location.
But now is the time to put off the new construction itself and take a proactive attitude of accepting changes in urban circumstances, rather than discussing the location or design proposal for the City Hall building. Just five years from now, great changes will happen with respect to the internal structure of the city as well as the status of Seoul relative to the entire country.
First of all, construction of a new administrative city is in progress. When the administrative city is built, not only government centers but also related agencies currently located in Sejong-no will move out of Seoul in large numbers. Also, all kinds of public agencies and institutes plan to be decentralized across the country. These changes will affect the entire structure of Seoul; as regards the use of existing government buildings, the needs for a new City Hall may change.
In addition, if the U.S. military base in Yongsan is relocated, the present base will become a park and some parts of it will be developed for other uses. Furthermore, if a number of new towns are developed in Gangbuk, northern Seoul, as the newly elected mayor promised, a shift in new developments that had been centered on Gangnam, southern Seoul will become inevitable. Recently, it was also proposed that the administrative system be restructured as a metropolitan system that comprises Seoul, Incheon and Gyeonggi province. Therefore, in order to preserve what’s inside the four largest gates of Seoul as a historical city and at the same time achieve balanced development of Seoul, it makes sense to examine what to do about constructing a new City Hall after we wait and see the progress of construction of a new administrative city, the transfer of government and public agencies, the restructuring of the administrative system, the relocation of the U.S. military base from Yongsan and the development of new towns in Gangbuk.
The inconvenience and inefficiencies that arise from having Seoul government officials working in buildings scattered here and there is no small problem. Despite this inconvenience, however, the historic construction of a new City Hall that will become a symbol of Seoul should not be undertaken in haste. I hope the newly elected Seoul mayor, Oh Se-hoon, will reconsider the plan to construct a new City Hall without being fettered by his predecessor’s decision or his own campaign pledge, so Seoul Plaza may continue to serve citizens as a spacious and beautiful field of festivals and help the city contained within the four largest gates of Seoul be reborn as a historical city.

* The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Shin Hye-kyung
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