The central government and the Seoul Metropolitan Government jointly announced a master plan for the development of the Hangang River and its riverbank earlier this week, signaling the start of yet another large-scale attempt to exploit one of the capital’s major assets.
The plan, which was one year in the making, divides the Hangang River into seven regions for multiphase development into a tourism destination while at the same time restoring the river’s ecology.
The first phase of the development is focused in the Yeoui-Ichon area. The blueprint envisions spaces for hallyu performances and exhibitions, a pier deck modeled after San Francisco Pier 39 and stores housed in movable containers all completed by 2018 on the riverbank in Yeouido. Incidentally, this ties in nicely with Hanwha Group’s recent successful bid to open a duty-free shop on Yeouido.
On the water, amphibious buses will connect Yeouido and Hongdae as well as Hapjeong, two popular tourist spots, while high-speed ferries will offer an alternative means of getting around.
The first phase of the project will cost some 400 billion won — part of the cost will be borne by the private sector with the central government and Seoul City splitting the remainder of the bill. The planners estimate that some 4,000 new jobs will be created. The authorities also expect the development plan to greatly boost the number of visitors to the Hangang River from the current 65 million per year to more than 100 million by 2030.
At a glance, the latest vision to develop the Hangang River is not much different from the Hangang Renaissance project pushed by former Seoul Mayor Oh Sei-hoon. Oh sought to capitalize on the Hangang River as a tourism asset too, launching water taxis, building cafes on bridges and constructing a floating island. In fact, the floating island, renamed Saevit Island since then, was the subject of much criticism by Mayor Park Won-soon during the early part of his administration: Seoul City civil servants were even asked to compile a white paper on the “failure” of the artificial island project. One major difference between the Hangang Renaissance project and the latest development plan is that the central government is firmly behind the effort.
However, the partnership between the central government and Seoul City may only be a tenuous one. Although Seoul City sought to strive to recover the natural state of the Hangang River, it appears the central government got its way in prioritizing tourist destination development, at least in the first phase. The master plan does not include removal of the dam near Gimpo Bridge, a point of much contention between the city, which is pushing for its removal with the claim that it pollutes the river by slowing down its flow, and the central government, which argues that the dam is needed to control the water level.
While the master plan calls for the phased development of the Hangang River, there is a possibility that the project may not survive beyond the first phase. Indeed, the Yeoui-Ichon development should be seen as a pilot project since the development of the remaining six areas hinges on the success of the first-phase development.
The central government and Seoul City have not fundamentally reconciled their differences over the direction of the river development, adding to the uncertainty of the project’s future. It may very well be that Yeoui and Ichon will be the only ones to have benefited from the new master plan if the next mayor or the next government decides to terminate the project. Such terminations and abrupt changes are not unusual in Korea.
Hangang River is an asset that should be utilized by the current generation and, at the same time, conserved for the generations to come. A true master plan should be forward-looking, one that withstands the vagaries of politicians.