[Viewpoint] Let buildings reach great heights

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[Viewpoint] Let buildings reach great heights

The Defense Ministry has long been dogged by lawsuits. Including its associated organizations, defense authorities have been bombarded by about 3,000 lawsuits over the last three years. That’s like having a lawsuit to pore over with each daily meal.

Indemnity and property-related cases make up the lion’s share of the total. Residents sue for compensation for height restrictions near army facilities or for noise pollution near the military airports.

And the losing party is usually the defendant. The ministry loses two out of three cases. This isn’t surprising, considering the orderliness and systemized nature of the suits.

The Suwon City Council formed a special committee to help residents win a fight to mitigate noise pollution near an air force base.

Over 200,000 residents signed the petition for compensation during the last four years. They won 48 billion won ($41.5 million) last year.

A Defense Ministry official complains the courts tend to side with the civilians over the military. “The younger the judges are, the more weight they place on the property rights of civilians,” the official said.

Sometime, the ministry throws up its hands in defeat. In April, it decided to ease restrictions on building heights near an air force base and plans to build noise barriers where noise pollution is serious.

A ministry spokesman said it was a win-win decision for both the civilians and the military. The military begrudgingly accepted the reality that the rights of the civilians sometimes override its own.

Two areas still remain beyond the reach of civilian property rights - the National Assembly in Yeouido, the largest island on the Han River, and the court complex in Seocho-dong, southern Seoul.

The skylines around the two areas have been restricted by the legislature and judiciary for the last three decades. No building can be higher that five stories in the area of the National Assembly. The National Assembly has banned high-rises since it found a home in Yeouido in 1975.

The purpose of the height limit was to uphold the “dignity of the legislative assembly.” In other words, lawmakers could not tolerate more majestic buildings towering over their assembly. The result has been uneven development in Yeouido.

A forest of skyscrapers sits east of Yeouido Park while low-rise structures are in the west behind the assembly compound. Authorities had to surrender their hopes of developing Yeouido into a major Asian financial district due to the assembly’s restrictions.

The situation is similar near the court compound in the largely residential Seocho-dong. Buildings in the area cannot top seven stories. The Supreme Court building has long been asked to modify the height regulation. Contractors have attempted to build high-rise apartments nearby, but have not succeeded.

The Supreme Court argues there is nowhere in the world where high-rise buildings block a nation’s highest court.

Land prices naturally vary steeply. The Seocho area costs over 30 million won per square meter, while the area near the court is worth less than half that.

But no one dares to sue.

A realtor who has been in business in the district for the last two decades shakes his head. He asks: “What lawyer wants to fight the Supreme Court?”

This also creates a security issue, because the two areas sit largely exposed, offering easy targets from the air.

It is high time that they, too, relinquish antiquated skyline limits in line with the action the Defense Ministry took in April. They could lose face if they obsessively cling to an authoritarian mind-set.

Of course, legislators and the judiciary can point to the example of Washington, D.C., where the entire city is subject to a height limit. Ever since Congressional backlash against the construction of a 14-story building in 1899, no buildings can rise taller than 20 feet more than the adjacent streets width, limiting them to usually 10 or 12 stories.

But Washington, D.C. and Seoul are different cases. The U.S. city was a planned capital from its inception and differs from more complex cities like New York and Seoul with many businesses.

If the National Assembly and Supreme Court envision a home like Washington, D.C., there is a simple solution. They can move to Sejong City, which has been planned for administrative purposes. No one will argue if they insist on a humble skyline near their new homes in Sejong.

*The writer is the business news editor of the JoongAng Sunday.
Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Lee Jung-jae
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