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Growing Pains (Page 4 of 4)

But as they campaigned, Park and Kim began to do intense research about the project and related laws and arrived at a different perspective. ‘When we talk now about how opposed we were then, it makes us laugh,’ Park says.

According to Park, Yongsan Development has promised residents 35 million won (about $30,000) to cover moving fees, 300 million won for rent or ‘key money’ deposit and — for homeowners — compensation worth 1.25 times the value of their property. In contrast to the emergency committee, he says the laws protecting residents are strong.

Park Woo Suh, a professor of urban and regional development at Yonsei, says that’s mostly true. ‘There’s a big disparity between the haves and the have-nots. [Homeowners] will get richer,’ he says, but renters generally get the short end of the stick.

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This is especially true in the case of West Ichon, says Jang Yeong-Hee, a senior research fellow at the Seoul Development Institute. The area has many multi-family homes, she explains, where rent is far cheaper than can be found elsewhere in the city centre.

And whereas in most redevelopment cases 70 percent of families stay in the area and are able to keep their kids in the same school, Jang says, Yongsan Ward is undergoing such massive development that most will have to go to Seoul’s outskirts or run-down neighbourhoods. The city is slated to destroy 30,000-40,000 housing units next year, she adds.

I meet Park Jong-Min and his friend Kim in front of Saenamteo Cathedral. Built in 1987, the soaring structure is perhaps the only West Ichon building that will be preserved, and looks more like a Buddhist temple with its pagoda-style roof — save the large cross at its peak and images of Catholic martyrs.

Where the two men are in agreement with the emergency committee is that the lack of discussion between residents, the city and the developers is a problem. When the project was announced, Park says, it came as a total surprise.

Yongsan Development has posted handfuls of fliers and mailings trying to convince residents the project is to their benefit — Park hands me an envelope full of them during our walk through the neighbourhood. But to this day, neither the firm nor the city has held an open discussion with West Ichon’s residents to explain those benefits and address their concerns, he says.

Kim, who himself is the president of a small development company, says that in the beginning the silence may in part have been deliberate in order not to tip off property speculators. But Park is more cynical. ‘Government workers are lazy,’ he says.

Pride and loss

Jin Hee-Seon, director of urban management at the Seoul Metropolitan Government, stresses that the full development of West Ichon is the best option for residents and the city overall. ‘If the apartments facing the river are kept, the work will be incomplete, and in the long term residents will suffer because the buildings won’t be able to be reconstructed,’ she says.

Current West Ichon residents who own their homes will be given the option of moving into in the new development along with cash compensation, according to Jin. As for tenants and shop owners who rent space, she says, how long they have been in the neighbourhood and whether they own other property will determine what kind of options they receive.

‘The success or failure of this project depends upon resident cooperation,’ she says. ‘It would be difficult to proceed if the majority of residents were opposed, so we’re going to make further efforts to unite resident opinion so that the development can go ahead.’

For some residents, the idea that their neighbourhood will become a landmark development of international renown is a source of pride. Lee Jeong-hee, 74, has lived in West Ichon for 35 years. She talks about seeing the mayor’s vision for the future of the city in the nearby Seoul Museum of History.

‘It looked so good,’ she says, ‘Like Japan or England. Isn’t it time for our country to have great buildings? It’s the 13th largest economy in the world … we worked hard, so our descendants should be able to live in a better place.’

Yet even among assenters there is a feeling that history is being erased.

Cho Myoung-hwan, 40, grew up in West Ichon and lives in a building that’s about as old as he is. ‘I’m losing all my memories,’ says Cho, ‘that’s the hardest thing about it.’

In spite of his nostalgia, he thinks it will be good to move someplace new. ‘I’ve had things fixed, but the building itself has problems,’ he says. ‘You don’t know when these things are going to fall down.’

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