Insa-dong to disallow opening of non-cultural shops
By Nam Hyun-woo
Insa-dong, a tourist spot popular for its traditional Korean elements, will undergo redevelopment in a two-pronged way ― maintaining its unique cultural features and ousting cafe franchises or cosmetic shops.
According to the latest guidelines by the Seoul Metropolitan Government (SMG), it will prohibit non-culture-relevant businesses from newly opening there as such businesses would ruin the area's unique characteristics.
Seoul's City Planning Commission also said it will promote the opening of shops selling antiques, traditional artifacts and paintings to maintain its symbolic image as a culture venue.
In recent years, the area came under criticism that it had lost its identity of traditional culture.
Coffee franchises, souvenir shops selling "made-in-China goods" and cosmetic shops have crowded out smaller shops handling goods featuring Korean tradition and art.
Apparently, those shops were far from the Korea Tourism Organization's description ― "Stores in Insa-dong specialize in a wide variety of goods that can only be purchased or appreciated in Korea such as hanbok or folk crafts."
Shops representing Insa-dong's heritage were ousted to a remote corner as they could not pay soaring rents on the main street that is most exposed to visitors.
The area is losing its appeal to foreign tourists on thriving cosmetic or souvenir shops.
"This will damage Insa-dong's value as a culture spot," said Choi Hee-so, chairman of an Insa-dong residents' association.
According to Choi, who has run a small shop for more than a decade, Insa-dong has unique characteristics as a traditional area. Inroads of massive capital, such as coffee or cosmetic franchises, have been killing the originality currently attracting tourists, he said.
"The so-called brand image of Insa-dong feeds all resident here. If the image vanishes, not only mom-and-pop shop owners like me but also landlords will be seriously harmed," Choi said.
As the tourism authority wrote in its description, Insa-dong is one of the most memorable tourist attractions in Seoul, designated as a "culture district," for the first time in the country in 2002.
Easier construction rules
With the designation, however, harsh remodeling regulations were forced upon residents. According to Choi, "Residents could not voluntarily modify a single tile of their houses."
Until the city came up with the new guidelines last month, landlords or building owners could not remodel or rebuild their properties without the district office's permission. This stirred criticism that it infringed on property rights.
SMG's latest decision, however, will offer leeway for residents to remodel their archaic buildings.
In its new guidelines, called the "Insa-dong Plan," the government divided the district into 69 small zones. Each zone can tear down or remodel buildings and houses separately, allowing gradual refurbishment of the entire area.
Before the plan, Insa-dong was partitioned into six large sectors and massive demolitions were scheduled for each.
Landowners can build three or four-story buildings, higher than the one or two-story buildings that are currently allowed. They can also build larger buildings, covering 80 percent of the land's surface. Before the plan, the building coverage ratio was limited to 60 percent.
Building lines will be set back from the center of the street to expand alleys wide enough for fire engines. Insa-dong has been prone to fires because of its narrow roads. In February this year, eight houses and buildings were burnt after a 51-year-old set fire to one of the houses. The arsonist faces an eight-year prison term.
"A redevelopment project dividing a large sector into smaller zones has never been done before," said Lee Je-won, the director of the SMG Urban Planning Bureau.
"The city government expects the new plan to set a milestone in the history of redevelopment projects, by pursuing development and preservation at the same time," Lee said.