Itaewon in central Seoul is one of South Korea’s most diverse and interesting neighborhoods. American soldiers from the nearby military base are a fixture. Diplomats from around the world are stationed at the area’s many embassies. A full-size mosque sits atop a hill. Migrant workers make their home in rundown but affordable apartments.
But perhaps not for much longer.
On Tuesday the Seoul Metropolitan Government approved the final version of the plan for razing a sizeable chunk of Itaewon. Officially named “Hannam Newtown District 3,” the targeted area stretches from the Itaewon Mosque and Cheil Building in the north almost to the Han River in the south, encompassing nearly 400,000 ㎡ of land.
The approval eases the way for construction of more than 5,800 apartments divided into 195 buildings.
In short, another forest of characterless condominiums is set to blight the center of Seoul.
Redevelopment is South Korea’s infamous urban renewal strategy. Speculators buy properties in a poor residential area at a rock-bottom price and put pressure on the local government to give tentative approval for the area’s ‘refurbishment.’ When the bureaucrats give in, property owners form a co-op to vote on the fate of the neighborhood. Often outnumbering genuine locals who have lived in the area for decades but might not have voting right because they don’t own property, the newcomers pass a plan, often with a slim majority, to replace everything with brand-new apartment buildings that are sold at a premium.
The process can involve hired gangsters who intimidate tenants into moving and construction firms that win lucrative contracts. Property price skyrockets.
The end result: architectural homogeneity of the worst kind and displacement of the poor.
Astute Seoulites had known for years that Itaewon was a target of speculators. Its close proximity to downtown Seoul and Gangnam just across the Han River makes it prime real estate. The area once had a reputation as a den of sin but has since become a thriving commercial hub with a hipster bent. It was a matter of time before Itaewon would be remade: By 2018, the American military is vacating Yongsan Garrison, to be turned into a large park, and a luxury condo development is already in progress on the nearby Hannamdaero, on the site of former American military housing.
“The plan still needs to be submitted by the co-op to the Yongsan District Office for another approval. Only then can bids from construction firms be accepted,” Jeon Jeong-hoon in the city government’s construction and planning division told Korea Exposé. “The timeline is different from project to project, and [Hannam District 3] is rather sizeable.”
According to the city government’s own press release, demolition of District 3 is expected to begin in September 2019.
Meanwhile, the plans to redevelop Hannam Newtown Districts 2, 4, and 5 — comprising different sections of Itaewon — are also in motion, though the city has yet to approve any of them.