Insa-dong redevelopment concerns

Long-time commenter Hamel has been pestering me to express an opinion about Seoul’s plan to lift redevelopment restrictions on the south end of Insa-dong (the area around Seung Dong Presbyterian Church), so here I am, posting an opinion about, well, Seoul’s plan to lift redevelopment restrictions on the south end of Insa-dong.

And it’s not a particularly strong one.


Frankly, this is not the worst redevelopment scheme I’ve seen. There seems to be an effort here to preserve the character of the neighborhood and encourage remodeling over demolitions. They’re not going to plow the neighborhood under and build offices like they did with the Pimatgol. And let’s be completely honest here—it’s not as if the area in question couldn’t use a major sprucing up. I love walking around in the alley behind the church as much as the next guy, but people need to live and work there.

Having said that, yes, there are some areas of concern. The biggest one involves the widening of the alleys in the neighborhood. To the city’s credit, it does seem they wish to maintain the neighborhood’s pattern of historic alleyways. However, the redevelopment plan calls for the alleys to be widened from two to four meters, ostensibly to allow emergency vehicles better access. Considering the considerable damage done to the area in February fire, it’s not difficult to see why the city would want to do this, but it could lead to the destruction of the neighborhood’s remaining historic homes. Writes Tom Coyner in an op-ed in the JoongAng Ilbo:

Specifically, according to newspaper articles, the permitted number of floors will be increased from one or two floors, in keeping with previous restrictions and traditional standards, to three or four floors, more in common with shopping malls. Citing concerns for pedestrian convenience and emergency vehicle access, the minimum alley width will be increased from two meters to four meters. Of course, to do this means tearing down many of the hanok and other older buildings lining small alleyways.

While I can sympathize for the need for greater access of fire engines, etc., I also recognize the absurdity. I live in a traditional community with widened alleys – clogged with illegally parked vehicles, making the area inaccessible for larger emergency vehicles. The concern with fire safety can be addressed with alternative facilities, such as increasing the number of fire hydrants in the alleys and installing smoke detectors, sprinkler systems and other fire prevention and mediation equipment in the buildings.

My guess is that at least some of the old homes will be disassembled and “renovated” in slightly new locations. Of course, what this often means is that the homes are almost completely demolished and rebuilt from scratch, destroying much of the home’s originality. That is a problem and one preservationists should and do address. That said, those homes are going to get that treatment regardless of whether the alleys are widened or not.

In a column in the Korea Times, Andy Salmon lists out all the reasons NOT to be optimistic about the Insa-dong redevelopment plan:

In Bukchon, Seoul’s prime zone of “traditional” housing, countless hanok have been “renovated” (i.e. flattened and rebuilt) to the point where this area’s architectural authenticity is downright questionable: The 1990s concrete apartment I live in is older than many Bukchon hanok.
Or take Pimatgol, the idiosyncratic little alleyway jammed with tiny restaurants. Admittedly, Pimatgol was dark and gritty, but it was one of the last of those back streets that once made up so much of Seoul and was the kind of alley that could only exist in Korea; it oozed authenticity and character. That did not prevent office developments in 2009 from eradicating it forever.
A few years ago, Samcheong-dong was a quiet, low-rise district of small independent shops, restaurants and cafes, many in converted hanok. Today, most hanok have been renovated beyond recognition, the neighborhood has been colonized by big, brand-name stores and a concrete monstrosity has sprouted in Samcheong-dong’s center, overwhelming the district. (Inevitably, its anchor tenant is a coffee shop.) Consequently, much charm has evaporated.

There’s more from where that came from. I share Andy’s skepticism, for sure, but at the same time, I don’t think all of the recent development has been so bad. I think Samcheong-dong still has plenty of charm, and assuming we’re talking about the same concrete monstrosity, I find it rather architecturally pleasing. There are plenty of disturbing trends in Bukchon, to be sure, but at the same time, some of the remodeled hanok are quite nice. For instance, I think the Simsimheon in Bukchon is absolutely gorgeous, and it’s less than a decade old. Sure, the walls on Sungnyemun Gate look a bit weird now, but most of Gyeongbokgung is a post-war restoration and it looks just fine. This is what moderates my level of concern—there’s no reason to trust that the authorities won’t botch the neighborhood up, but I really have no idea what is supposed to come next aside from what I’ve read in the papers. Which is not much.

  • J. Scott Burgeson

    The reason Koreans used to like to visit Insa-dong was mostly out of nostalgia. Indeed, for the average apartment-dwelling Korean, the rare traditional atmosphere of Insa-dong produced the uncanny sense of being a tourist in one’s own country.

    These days, since most Koreans spend all their time lost in the virtual reality of the Internet and their smartphones, they feel a sense of nostalgia for reality itself. Thus, it no long matters what modern form Insa-dong takes on with redevelopment, since it can continue to perform the same function that it has for the past several decades: A refuge or escape for Koreans who have alienated themselves from their own culture, and from themselves.

  • Bob Bobbs

    Not a bad way to put it. I’d just call it ‘Korean Lightning.’

  • SalarymaninSeoul

    What is that thing at the northern end of Insadong with the high wall and thick steel doors? Is it a military base? A prison?

  • Sanshinseon

    the former US Embassy housing compound. dozens of really really charming, colorful 1950s midwest-American cottages! I walked thru it once. Shouldda been preserved as some kinda attraction, re-purposed. Just sits there, on incredibly valuable land; SK & US can’t decide/agree on how to dispose of it…

  • SalarymaninSeoul

    Why is it blank on on-line maps? Why is it like a fortress?

  • J. Scott Burgeson

    I hear they’re planning to build the world’s largest Caffe Bene there.

  • SalarymaninSeoul

    That strikes me as both tragic and highly probable. Or, maybe, some kind of futuristic monstrosity as they built at Dongdaemun. It would be a fantastic open space, though if they could connect it with the new museum they are putting up across from Kyongbok Palace

  • J. Scott Burgeson

    Don’t worry, they’ll write the signboard out front in Han’gul lettering and call it “traditional.”

  • RElgin

    Damn . . .