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Rebuilding could come to Seoul’s small lanes

Sept 08,2017
The Seoul city government is planning a policy change that will allow owners of dilapidated houses in older neighborhoods to completely overhaul and rebuild them according to their needs.

The Building Act states that structures can only be built next to a road at least 4 meters (13 feet) wide, which is wide enough for both pedestrians and cars.

That law, enacted in 1962, prevented overhauls of residences on narrower lanes, as are common in many old neighborhoods in Seoul.

“My house, which measures 99 square meters [1,065 square feet], is more than 50 years old,” said a 58-year-old surnamed Kim, a resident of Seongbuk District, central Seoul. “The rain leaks into the house and it has many cracks in the walls.

“I’ve tried to renovate the house a little here and there, but it’s not enough,” he added. “What the house really needs is to be completely brought down and rebuilt, but the law prohibits me from doing that.”

Kim’s house is on a lane only 2 meters wide.

“We are inspecting the state of houses in older neighborhoods and will be conveying the data to the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport to suggest an amendment to the Building Act at the end of the year,” said Kang Hee-eun, head of the Regeneration Policy Division of Seoul Metropolitan Government. “We will also be consulting some experts and residents on what would be the best course to take.”

In one older neighborhood in Seongbuk District, there are some 160 houses that are 40 to 50 years old built on 1.5 kilometers (0.9 miles) of a network of lanes less than 4 meters wide. Mr. Park, a 45-year-old resident of an old neighborhood in Jongno District, central Seoul, is equally frustrated with the law.

“Thirteen years ago I bought my house, which is located next to my parents’ house,” Park said. “I had a plan to take down both houses, which are very old, and rebuild them into one bigger house.

“But that plan was doomed because the lane next to our two houses is so narrow,” he added. “I only found out about the 4-meter law after I bought my house. Our houses are so old, they get really cold during the winter - even when we have the heaters on, we can see our breath inside - it’s that cold.”

“The current Building Act restricts the freedom of residents to rebuild their houses according to their needs,” Kang said. “An amendment to the law to allow more individual freedom in reconstruction could also encourage more people to continue to live in these neighborhoods instead of flocking to high-rise apartments.”

“The 4-meter regulation was set up because the focus of city development in the past has been on the cars and transport efficiency,” said Bae Byung-gil, president of Korean Institute of Architects. “Now is the time to recalibrate the focus of the regulation, so that it would be more people-centered.”

There are others who disagree.

“The width of the roads must be extended, if they are not already, to ensure that fire trucks and ambulances can gain access to them,” said Cho Chung-kee, president of Korea Institute of Registered Architects. “It would be for the public good.”

Some residents of older neighborhoods in Seoul would prefer that the local government designate their neighborhood as a redevelopment and reconstruction area, which would greatly increase property values.

This way, the residents would be able to share with the city government the costs of rebuilding - though sometimes the cost of rebuilding the whole area exceeds the budget of original residents and ends up driving older residents out of the area because they can’t afford it.

“If the law changes to allow more individuals to rebuild their houses as they wish, the city government will have less of a reason to designate an area for city government-led regeneration,” said a spokesperson of the Jongno District Office. “So some residents could oppose that change.”

BY LIM SUN-YOUNG [chung.juhee@joongang.co.kr]