Put more thought into project

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Put more thought into project

The city of Seoul announced it will turn the old 938-meter, two-lane overpass at Seoul Station into a public green space and pedestrian pathway instead of demolishing it. Some welcome the idea, which is modeled after the High Line, an elevated park in New York, and the Promenade Plantee in Paris. But shopkeepers in the commercial neighborhood worry about traffic issues and the damage it may cause their business. Some also say installing an artificial green space in a heavily congested area will be more of a showcase than a public resting space for citizens.

Shopkeepers protested strongly when the old Cheonggye overpass was demolished in order to renovate the stream underneath it into a public waterway, fearing it would cause traffic hell in Seoul’s downtown area and kill local commerce.

But the space has turned into a pleasant refuge from the city. The path connecting it to the Dongdaemun shopping district has also helped businesses there. Merchants around the Gangnam Bus Terminal in southern Seoul were also opposed to the plan to create a crosswalk, saying it could kill the underground shopping mall. But the opposite happened. Shoppers now fill the mall while pedestrians chose to cross above ground, lessening traffic in both areas.

Urban projects are usually initiated based on public need. Some end up as kitsch eyesores, but most are passable.

Gwanghwamun Plaza still looks strangely out of tune, stretching across the middle of the road, but civilians are happier with it than before when it was 16 lanes of traffic.

The nearby grass plaza in front of the Seoul City Hall is preferable to the concrete stretch of Gwanghwamun Square, but the transformation has improved the overall environment.

Urbanization projects usually get protests and opposition from some groups fearing damage to their vested interests. Those that protest have usually been doing business in the area for a long time. But the real problem does not arise from these individuals. The issue is that urbanization projects stir real estate prices in areas nearby. Projects that have helped reinvigorate business and raise real estate prices had a common goal of turning the area from a car-friendly one into a pedestrian-friendly one. In all the cases where streets were turned car-free - in Insa-dong, the popular arts alleys around Hongik University and the shopping district of Garosu-gil in Sinsa-dong, southern Seoul - real-estate prices jumped.

The concerns of merchants and residents have been proved wrong. Business improved even when cars were banned as people dined out and shopped more when they were walking. But a different kind of problem occurred. Because business was good, new merchants rushed into the neighborhoods and sent rent prices sky high. Mom-and-pop stores had to move out and make room for newer, burgeoning trade.

The project to turn the Seoul Station overpass into a sky garden also must take this problem into account. I’m not a traffic expert, so I can’t back the Seoul city government’s claim that the public park space will alleviate congestion in the area. If the highway connecting Namdaemun and western Seoul is transformed into an elevated green space, many people could choose to use it for leisure and commuting. An increase of commuters will help the neighborhood. We do not have to cite the success of New York’s High Line. Projects to increase greenery in a city have done more good than harm.

Urban plans tend to be unilateral. We have seen many examples of white elephant public projects that were pursued for grandiose design and economic benefits, which proved illusory.

As a Seoul citizen, I hope the controversy over the new design plan can be constructive. The project should help existing commercial business, but what’s more important is how it can ultimately contribute to the city.

The selection of a foreign designer to transform the elevated road should be the beginning of a discussion on more realistic problems. Debating how the new green space can serve to revive business in Namdaemun and west of the station would be a more realistic approach than outright opposition.

There is only one straightforward solution to boost prices of undervalued real estate lots. This is to increase the public transportation system, uncover the hidden value of the neighborhood, and create a pedestrian- and resident-friendly area. The historical sites of Namdaemun and Seoul Station have many stories to tell. The park project must be carried out in bigger context to develop and highlight the historical aspect of the capital.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily

*The author is the head of Ogisa Design.

by Oh Young-wook

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