Thursday, January 17, 2019

Euljiro v. Wide? My Alleyway or the Highway

So the danger seems even more immediate than I feared for old Euljiro eateries (e.g. Eulji Myeonok), as well as for more recent ones (the amazing, booming Euljiro 3-ga nogari alley):

"Restoration project not planning to restore much" (KJD 20190118) - note that Eulji Myeonok was also featured in a Chosun Ilbo article

After decades of neglect, Euljiro is undergoing rapid, radical changes that may save or destroy rare ecosystems, and these are truly critical times for all stakeholders.

If you're not familiar with the area, and the context, we're talking about the bleeding heart of Seoul, serious controversies around how urban regeneration / renewal is being carried out, and manufactured crises hitting an already weakening economy.

1) Why Euljiro matters

'Euljiro' is one of the most defining axes of the original Seoul intra muros - a few weeks ago I posted a short animation explaining that big picture ('Drawing Sadaemun'):

Euljiro is the backbone of what I call "Cheongnam" (by opposition to Cheongbuk*), or the Southern half of Sadaemun, between Cheonggyecheon and Namsan. This very dense urban maze holds countless old neighborhoods ('dong') where small businesses thrived over centuries.

Under Japanese rule, a few streets leading to Cheonggyecheon bridges were widened, and new thick vertical lines cut through the area. On safety grounds (preventing fires from spreading too far, providing landing lanes), but probably also for political reasons, following Haussmann's example in Paris: it's way easier to contain unrest, and way more difficult to erect or hold barricades.

Still, now, along Eulji-ro itself, the horizontal avenue linking basically Deoksugung / City Hall / Seoul Plaza to the DDP and Gwanghuimun, you can find:
Unlike Jong-ro or Yulgok-ro, the more noble horizontals to the North, Eulji-ro doesn't boast royal landmarks. Big companies dot it, particularly along its Western half, closer to the city center (SKT, KEB Hana Bank, IBK, Lotte Hotel and Department Store), but the neighborhood is also known for its myriads of small businesses in printing, lighting, home improvement, its BtoB activities buzzing with rickety motorbike deliveries.

And eateries. A lot of precious holes in the wall, including institutions that have resisted for decades because the food is good and cheap. Here, you simply can't last long if you're not both.

In these tiny alleyways, many people struggle to make a living. If you can't find a store that has everything you need, that's often deliberate: everyone refers to a cluster of providers to make sure each one gets part of whatever meager job passes by. A category killer like Home Depot or Leroy Merlin would instantly put thousands on the dole.

Because land is too expensive for such a famelic ecosystem, Euljiro became this absurd patchwork of touching time capsules, even if it seats in the heart of the city, crisscrossed by the densest network of public transportation, starting with the first five subway lines (thus the powerful Line 2, with no less than 3 stations named after it).

For Seoul's balance and future, Euljiro has to be saved, and to fully embrace the third millenium, but without losing its soul and unique ecosystem... very much like the iconic Seun Sangga, which seats in its very middle (between its Cheonggye Sangga and Sampoong Sangga sections).

That's a very delicate line to walk, and good intentions don't necessarily lead to good results, as we've seen with KIM Swoo-geun's mammoth, from the initial brief ("Revamping Seun Sangga - If Possible Without Vampirizing The Area") to the first results (as revealed during "Seoul Biennale of Architecture and Urbanism 2017").

2) Change is coming at all levels

To me, the turning point could have been 101 Pine Avenue, an ambitious development first positioned as the first luxury residence in the area. But as the post-Lehman slump stretched, it became a more standard office complex. If Jung-gu rejuvenated its business center earlier and faster along Cheonggyecheon, more towers have bloomed over the past few years along Eulji-ro, radically altering an until then relatively low rise cityscape, but also 'sterilizing' an heteroclite street level in the same breath.

"Tightrope walker #construction workers on #Euljiro, #Seoul." (20171031 -
In parallel, Seoul keeps rediscovering its unsung landmarks as part of what could be described as an urban vintage chic trend: all of a sudden, ugly becomes art, obscure alleyways get insta-hyped, and corny eateries fill with young couples roaming until-then-forsaken neighborhoods.

"JungJaeho's facades, familiar #Jongno & #Euljiro unsung landmarks - #KoreaArtistPrize 2018 #exhibition at #MMCASeoul, #Seoul. #architecture" (20181027 -
As usual, I'm enchanted to see Seoulites, particularly younger generations, eventually embrace their urban heritage, and at the same time, I'm sad to see gentrification at work. And as usual, I have to plead guilty, since I never could resist Euljiro's clumsy, charming time capsules**:

Needless to say, Seoul Metropolitan Government remains a driving force of change. And as it should be, Euljiro is a cornerstone in downtown's urban regeneration, and not just around major renovation projects like Sewoon Sangga or Euljiro underground shopping center, Korea's longest (2.8 km from City Hall to the DDP, built in 1983 at the same time of the Line 2 it follows).

Euljiro 3-ga, in 2016, an area of 40,600 square meters was marked for a mix of redevelopment and conservation. Seoul dumped its initial plans (2010-2011) of demolishing large chunks around Supyo-dong, where 77.4% of the buildings were over 40 year-old, and 82.5% were in such a poor state that they required renovation or reconstruction. In a less radical improvement scenario, several landmarks are spared, like the massive Donghwa Building.

Recent tragedies have pushed local authorities to impose new safety controls for old buildings, which will accelerate Euljiro's transformation.

If so many buildings are crumbling, that's also because rent was relatively cheap compared to land value. Landowners being now compelled to do something, and the area recovering some of its popularity, renovations and new buildings could eventually lead to higher yields, forcing the weaker to move out. 

As that Mullae-dong resident summed up Seoul's real estate curse, 'when everybody's driven out of a neighborhood at once, that's redevelopment. When the same happens one by one, that's urban regeneration':

(20190109 -
3) Small businesses in immediate danger

As shown in the KJD article, restaurant owners struggle to distinguish this high speed urban regeneration with classic redevelopment, and they fear for their survival, even if their own building will be spared. 

If we've seen this happen before in countless Seoul neighborhoods, this trauma comes at a critical moment for small businesses, who have to face massive hikes in overtime, and minimum wages, that have already caused so much havoc across Korea's economy (see "Checks and balances"). Jongno's old-style structures are even more vulnerable:

"Not all shops in downtown Seoul are ready for a massive minimum wage hike that already cost many jobs: " (20181228 -

"Hundreds of small businesses at risk. I'm thinking about those small home improvement stores that barely survive by artificially splitting between themselves products and services within tiny clusters " (20180815 -

Across the nation, many restaurants consider closing at 9 pm instead of 10 because they can't afford new overtime fees. I'm all for protecting employees, but these too sudden, too massive hikes are not only creating more unemployment, but also changing the mood of communities. Euljiro, where the small business / resident ratio is so high, may rapidly lose its charm.

Seoul Village 2019
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* south of the stream, not south of the river... let's be clear: Gangnam doesn't belong to my Seoul :)
** and I keep discovering new ones (I'm thinking of another incredible gem - thank you again Jaiho!)

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