Beginning next month, Seoul will witness perhaps the most ambitious and controversial construction project in its 600-year history. On Tuesday, the Cheonggyecheon Stream Restoration Project will get under way with the dismantling of a 5km elevated highway linking central Seoul and the northeast districts. Under the US$300 million project, the paved ground below will then be dug up to expose a natural stream.
The goal over the next 30 months is to turn the stream, currently used to channel sewage, into an environmentally friendly waterway where fish and birds can thrive.
The city government is pushing the project, despite stiff public opposition. It has good reason to do so. The 40-year-old overpass has become an unsightly structure that makes the surrounding neighbourhoods look like slums. Because the elevated structure blocks views and generates constant noise and pollution, developers have deserted the area, leaving buildings along the road to become dilapidated. Cheap clothing and electronics shops, or small factories that churn out such products, fill most of the buildings.
While Seoul's other districts, particularly the areas to the south of the Han River which bisects the city, have prospered, with many new commercial and residential buildings rising up, the Cheonggyecheon area has remained in a time warp. Seoul City Mayor Lee Myung-bak won last year's election partly by promising to restore the stream and to bring back people and business to the area.
But opponents are concerned that the disappearance of the elevated highway will create a monstrous traffic problem. Without this heavily travelled west-east artery, 10 million people in Seoul will experience round-the-clock gridlock, they fear. Those already doing business in the area are also vehemently against the idea, as they are unsure whether the project will improve their commercial fortunes.
For its part, the city government argues that Seoul's notorious traffic problems will actually ease, as people will give up their cars in favour of public transport. As for the traders' concerns, the city claims the area will become a magnet for developers, who will invest to build banking, hi-tech and fashion outlets along the reclaimed stream.
City officials might be right. In the end, the area could become one of Seoul's most attractive districts, both environmentally and commercially. But for now, few people are willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.
That is because there have not been enough public hearings and discussions about the matter, which people feel will transform the heart of their metropolis. The opponents argue that more time is needed to analyse the issue from all angles. Indeed, like so many other construction projects in South Korea that were hurriedly conceived and implemented, this project's rosy vision could crumble under its own hubris if the people's views are not taken more seriously.