Construction sparks conflict in Oksu

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Construction sparks conflict in Oksu

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The Oksu Area 13 redevelopment project will replace the existing houses as seen in the left side of the picture with new apartments like the ones on the right, which are the product of a different redevelopment. However, the project is currently on hold amid a conflict between homeowners in the area. By Park Sun-young

A row of antiquated houses two and three stories high line a long road that zigzags up a small hill in Oksu-dong, Seongdong District, central Seoul. Here, the buildings stand so close to each other that all you have to do to look in on your neighbor is open your window and lean across the way. Walking around the neighborhood is like taking a trip back in time to a city before modernization.

“Oksu-dong is a place that has served as an incubator for poor but ambitious young people in Seoul working to establish themselves. Many of our customers have been people like that - it’s like seeing your little brothers and sisters grow up to stand on their own,” said Kim Seong-moo, 44, who has run a beauty shop in the neighborhood with his wife for about 20 years. “Because we’ve been here for so long, many of us have deep-seated traditions,” he added.

In fact, Oksu-dong has long been a nesting ground for young people coming to Seoul from the provinces dreaming of success as well as young, poor married couples. Many who settle here never leave, contributing to the neighborhood’s small town feel. Housing is affordable compared to other areas in Seoul and the location is central.

“Most Oksu-dong residents have lived here for more than 40 years, almost since the time when the neighborhood was formed,” said Park Gui-nam, 66, who has lived in the area for about four decades. She measures the time by her daughter, who was born when she and her husband moved in to Oksu-dong and is now almost 40 years old.

“The way we start the day here in Oksu-dong is by greeting our neighbors. We meet face to face every morning when we open our windows,” Yun Chi-ho, 77, who has lived in Oksu-dong for 53 years now.

But all of this is beginning to change. Conflicts between Oksu residents over a pending redevelopment project have caused a rift among longtime neighbors, in addition to delaying the project.

Oksu-dong has long been regarded by the rest of Seoul as something of a hillside slum, and the city government drew up plans to redevelop the area in 2004.

“A number of young people who had once dropped anchor here have moved out in the last two years as the redevelopment project began to take shape,” beauty shop owner Kim said. “It will be sad to lose them not only because they are our customers, but because it seems there are no longer any places in Seoul for young people who don’t have much money but do have dreams.”

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Redevelopment is already under way in Oksu Area 12.

Kim has observed other changes as well. “The atmosphere in Oksu-dong has changed significantly and become, well, soulless. In the past, this used to be a friendly quarter where you could see people chatting with each other day and night at an open door or window, but we don’t often see that these days.”

The redevelopment project will divide the neighborhood into two areas: Area 12 and Area 13. Construction has already begun in Area 12. Old houses and buildings have been torn down to make room for new apartments.

But work on Area 13 is currently at a standstill due to conflicts between the homeowners invested in the project. Some say the property valuation system was not applied correctly, which will not allow them to recoup their investments. Others say they will benefit from the improvements.

When this reporter visited Oksu Area 13 last Saturday afternoon, the situation looked fairly grim. All around the neighborhood, there were yellow banners with the message: “The court has put a temporary injunction on the Oksu Area 13 Homeowners’ Association to stop its operations.”

In an office on the second floor of one building in Area 13, the people gathered there were speaking earnestly about the redevelopment project.

“This used to be the office of the Oksu Area 13 Homeowners’ Association, but we have taken it over,” Park, the 40-year resident of Oksu, said.

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The Oksu Area 13 Homeowners’ Association and the Emergency Measures Committee of Oksu Area 13 Residents are engaged in a battle over the details of the redevelopment project both in and out of court.

The “we” Park refers to is the recently formed Emergency Measures Committee of Oksu Area 13 Residents, which broke away from the Homeowners’ Association when the dispute flared.

On a visit to the same building the week before, a banner from January this year with a message that welcomed the government’s approval of the Oksu Area 13 redevelopment project was hanging in the place where the yellow banner seen around the rest of the neighborhood now hangs.

“The association leaders, who should be representing the interests of all Oksu Area 13 residents, were doing the opposite,” she said.

Members of the Emergency Measures Committee accuse the Homeowners’ Association of failing to register for an acceptable “floor-to-area ratio” for Oksu residents. They are upset because they say that residents’ representatives for the neighboring Area 12 got a better ratio for its residents.

The ratio determines total floor size of a building in relation to the total area slated for redevelopment. The lower the floor-to-area ratio, the smaller the number of apartments that will be built, which will decrease the amount of money that homeowners can earn from their initial investment. The ratio for Oksu Area 13 was set at 197 percent.

“With a floor-to-area ratio as low as 197 percent, I will have to pay an additional 200 million won to get a new apartment in exchange for my 40-pyeong house,” Park said.

Park and the other members of the committee argue that a ratio of 197 percent is unreasonable considering that the ratio for Oksu Area 12 has been set at 230 percent.

“In our judgment, the leadership of the Homeowners’ Association did something wrong, so we stepped forward and established the Emergency Measures Committee to get things right,” said Park Bong-rae, 75, who is also a member of the committee.

The internal conflict between the two escalated into a physical fight earlier this year and the court was brought in to arbitrate the dispute. The court responded by putting a temporary injunction on the association’s operations, causing the current delay in the redevelopment process in Area 13.

“Even if we get a new, more favorable floor-to-area ratio, I’m not so in favor of the redevelopment project itself because it is not easy to find a place to live in Seoul [outside of Oksu-dong] given my poor financial situation,” Park said. “And my situation is not so different from that of many of the other people living in Oksu, most of whom are also poor,” he added.

However, there are other Oksu residents who welcome the redevelopment project.

Yun, the 53-year Oksu resident, and his wife Lee Bong-ja, 73, moved to the neighborhood when they married and have raised four children there, all of whom are married and live elsewhere. They view the redevelopment project as a positive change.

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An alleyway within Oksu Area 13 still has an antiquated feel.

“Oksu-dong is the place where we raised our two daughters and two sons. It’s where we watched them grow up,” Yun said. “We’ve lived in this house, which was built about 30 years ago, for a long time and it’s just too old.”

Yun said that because the discussions on the redevelopment project had begun several years ago, he and his wife have held off on doing any home repairs, thinking that it would be a waste of money to fix a house that would eventually be demolished. Yun says he will move to a new place and expects to find one easily, but says he is fortunate to have some savings because he does not expect to receive much compensation for his home when it is eventually torn down.

Yun said the entire neighborhood is divided into those who support the Homeowners’ Association and those who support the Emergency Measures Committee, and that the two groups are not even talking to one another anymore. He said it hurts him to see everyone fighting like this.

“Any area undergoing redevelopment is sure to have opposition and conflict, but I think the repercussions are bigger here in Oksu-dong than in any other place because of the neighborhood’s characteristics [as an area for low-income housing],” said Kim, the beauty shop owner.

“After the redevelopment project began, each household’s finances were made public, which has inevitably hurt the feelings of many people,” he said. “It is just sad to see people, who have lived together happily, so at odds with each other in the aftermath of the redevelopment project.”


By Park Sun-young [spark0320@joongang.co.kr]

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