Yes, the population density of Seoul is 17,000/km2. Coming from a spacious western country, one might expect people packed into city streets, subways, and apartments like sardines, maybe even standing on each other’s shoulders for lack of room.
But what’s even more surprising is the amount of land within Seoul that is unused, just left to nature with no plans moving forward. For the purpose of this article, I identify seven areas within Seoul city limits that are mainly composed of empty land that is currently not undergoing redevelopment. Essentially, places where urban redevelopment has failed. Brownfield zones, failed redevelopments, accidental parking lots.
7. Yongsan Railyard
Let’s start with something big: this vacant lot just to the west of Yongsan Station is 566,000 square meters, which is equivalent to 33 soccer fields. The land sits empty and unused, covered by a green netting and countless invasive plant species. There are a number of unused buildings remaining along the southern edge of the property: a post office building, mineral processing facilities, and a long skinny train maintenance building.
Formerly a major railyard, the land was cleared out in 2011-2012 to prepare for the Yongsan Dreamhub project, also known as Yongsan International Business District (IBD). It was to be the largest construction project ever attempted in Korea’s history, estimated to cost 30 trillion KRW. However, that came to an end in March 2013 when the project’s main actor failed to meet the deadline for repaying a 5.2 billion KRW debt, ripping off tons of investors and leaving a huge crater in the middle of Yongsan.
There are currently no plans to redevelop the area. Worse, the land hides 388,000 cubic meters of industrial waste, the equivalent of all industrial waste generated by Korea in two weeks. A number of underground barriers have been placed to attempt to prevent runoff into the river or surrounding area, but nobody wants to take the lead in cleaning up the area. Seventy percent of the land is still owned by Yongsan Dreamhub, whatever that now means, and Korails hands are tied. Currently there is a temporary building at the north end of the lot that is intended to serve for cleanup activities, but it is woefully understaffed. So for now, we’re stuck with this wasteland.
I sometimes think the SMG should leave the big, empty hole in Yongsan as it is as a memorial to bad city planning, wrote Robert Koehler over at the Marmots Hole.
The ground is covered by this green netting, probably to prevent loose soil from blowing around in the wind.
It’s hard to imagine anything larger than Yongsan Railyard being left vacant in this city. That’s perhaps why Magok, at 3.6 million square meters, doesn’t get as much attention.
Located northeast of Gimpo Airport and stretching up almost to the riverbank of the Han, Magok is a wild zone of weeds and stagnating water. As far as I know, there was never anything substantial in this land before.
When Seoul Subway Line 9 opened, it built two ghost stations contained within the empty expanse. Today, medium-scale high rise projects have filled in the western side, and both subway stations now are able to service the public. Although Magongnaru Station still rudely juts into the wasteland.
As you can see, there are significant signs of construction present. However, many of the vehicles are old and rusting and their insurance coverage has expired. Although there have been plans to redevelop the area in a similar manner to Digital Media City or Guro Digital Industrial Complex, it looks like well just continue to see small-scale projects popping up along the edges rather than filling in this substantially sized urban hole. Stephane over at Seoul Village has a lot more to say about this region.
5. Deoksugung Seonwonjeonteo
This area has quite a history.For what amounts to a parking lot.
Originally part of Deoksugung Palace, this 25,000-square-meter area was once the venue of a ritual venerating past kings. It would have housed the portraits of the kings, and there’s significance to the one single tree in the middle of that area down there.
More recently it was Gyeonggi Girls High School, and then after that it was used as parking for police buses. Now it is sealed up. For a while, the land belonged to the US, which planned to build a new embassy compound on this site. In May 2004 the US agreed to return the land to Korea, and it was marked as a cultural and historical asset. This asset remains empty, with the footprints of old buildings still vaguely visible.
Whats even weirder, when I went to investigate, I discovered an abandoned highrise building adjacent to the property, sealed up and unchanged since 2009.
4. The Golden Plot of Sogong-dong
Ever notice that Asiana Airlines billboard just south of Seoul Plaza? Whats behind that?
The answer, obviously, is another area of underutilised land. This 6,562-square-meter area is currently in use as an accidental parking lot, failing to live up to its potential in the heart of downtown. You might not notice the parking lot, hidden behind seven aging buildings that range from mostly vacant to almost completely vacant. Abandoned or not, the property is worth a fortune, earning it the nickname the golden plot. And the building owners are holding on tight.
The fate of this area might change very soon according to the Joongang Daily, with investors eager to put a new hotel on the spot. Nikola over at Kojects has a lot more information about this area, as well as a proposal for what could be built here.
3. Empty embassy compound
Whats surprising about so many of these wastelands is how central almost all of them are. For instance, the land right next to Gyeongbokgung has to be worth a lot, doesn’t it? Quick, think: whats over there? If you answered Samcheong-dong, then whats between Samcheong-dong and the palace? Answer: another brownfield zone, this one also formerly US embassy property.
Here, you can see the footprints of former buildings that have been removed. This 30,000-square-meter area was previously a housing compound for the nearby US embassy, and Korea still hasn’t found a way to incorporate this returned land back into the city. There was talk of Korean Airlines opening a seven-star Hanok hotel there, but according to Stephane at Seoul Village this appears to be no longer the case. Apparently they were unable to get permission due to its proximity to a few high schools. So for now, there’s a big empty hole right in the heart of Seoul, and its easy to forget due to the high stone walls that are at least much more attractive than what borders the most of these wastelands.
One of the city’s most beloved tourist areas, Insadong gets a lot of attention whenever it seems its future may be threatened or parts of it burn down. But then everyone realises that they’re not talking about destroying the main shopping street, just some old buildings off to the side, and we go back to our Starbucks coffees and all seems right with the world.
And then in late 2011, one of the buildings adjacent to that famed alley was covered up and removed, along with two more behind it, and nobody cared.
I don’t know much at all about this project, beyond what it looks like today. Its a small, empty lot in comparison to the others on this list, but it bears the same signs of a forgotten redevelopment zone. Bet you didn’t know something like this is so close to you when you go shopping in Insadong.
1. Yongsan District 4
The story of failed urban renewal in Seoul begins and ends in Yongsan. No area is more infamous in Seoul’s war to redevelop than Yongsan District 4. Stretching to the east of Sinyongsan Station, this empty field serves as a mirror reflection of the empty Yongsan Railyard to the west.
Previously a typical mixed-purpose neighbourhood full of 434 businesses as well as homes and a small market, this area began being evicted in 2008. The law provides certain protections for residents being evicted, under the notion that everyone has a right to housing, but the same is not extended to the right to do business, meaning that business owners don’t get fair compensation. When you keep in mind that many people of the area both lived and made a living here, its pretty obvious that this situation was going to get worse.
In order to hurry redevelopment, the construction company contracted hired goons to harass evictees. Restaurant owner Choi Soon-kyung describes this process in a Korea Herald article:
On a mild Nov. 4, 2008 morning, Choi says sledgehammer-wielding gangsters hired by construction companies showed up at her restaurant as diners sat down to brunch and smashed to pieces everything they couldn’t carry away. This occurred even though the government had said she had until Nov. 28 to close shop and relocate. Her restaurant sat on land slated for redevelopment and the men, officially referred to as movers, were carrying out an eviction order issued by Seoul City.
My first visit to this area was around this time, on November 16, 2008. By that time Id already been urban exploring in Korea regularly for about a year and a half, and this was far from my first abandoned neighbourhood. But what struck me immediately was the extremeness of the graffiti. Along with direct attacks and sledgehammer raids, hired goons frequently would dump trash, break windows, and draw graffiti this was all standard practice but never before had I seen such sadistic images before. I nicknamed the area Gangsters Paradise after the high level of hired goon activity.
So when I heard what happened next, I cant say I was surprised that it happened here.
In mid-January 2009, the remaining holdout evictees took to fortifying themselves in some of the buildings for protection against hired goon attacks. The most prominent of these was Namildang, a four-storey building right on the corner overlooking Hangangdaero. Very shortly after the sit-in began, the police took action. Apparently evictees had been throwing molotov cocktails to keep the hired goons back, and due to its high-visibility location the anti-terrorist riot police were sent in to end the siege. Evictees had soaked the buildings stairway with inflammable liquids, sending a clear message: Well protect this building with our lives. The police used a crane to lift a cargo container full of cops up to the rooftop, where they stormed the evictee fortress. A fire was sparked, leading to the deaths of five evictees and one cop.
The plan for the area was called Yongsan Link, which apparently would have been a large underground shopping center. This project failed around the same time as Yongsan IBD, which eclipsed it in the media. The area has sat vacant for years, returned to nature. Currently, there is a model home set up on the north side of the lot for Daewoo Prugio Summit, which is slated to open across the street in July 2017, on the site of the former red-light district (which didn’t make the list as it has never been vacant, currently housing a vibrant street food tent village).
Id feel less wronged if a new building was standing, said Yu Yeong-suk, a former restauranteur who was widowed in the Yongsan Disaster.