SEOUL — Go to Seoul 20 years from now, and chances are you won’t recognize what you see in the heart of the city: A grand, massive public park, reminiscent of New York City’s Central Park or London’s Hyde Park.
At least, that’s what Seoul city planners want you to see on the land that now belongs to U.S. Army Garrison-Yongsan.
The 630-acre military base is scheduled to return to South Korean control in 2012, along with all other U.S. bases in and north of Seoul. Troops stationed at those bases will move south to Camp Humphreys near Pyeongtaek.
South Korean government agencies and Seoul argued for years over what to do with Yongsan’s land. Sell it off in parcels, making a profit as new businesses and apartments go up? Or, turn it into a public park?
The park idea won, although the city has no timeline for building it.
A Seoul official said it’s impossible to estimate the value of that land. But real estate in the districts bordering Yongsan is more expensive than most other areas in the city.
For instance, an average-sized three bedroom, two bathroom apartment in Daebangdong, a mid-range Seoul neighborhood, costs $408,000. Some of the newest high-rise apartments being built outside the base cost more than $1 million.
Catherine Lutz, a Brown University professor who studies the effect military bases have on their communities, said servicemembers’ incomes and buying habits shape the neighborhoods where they live and work. If they make less or more money than the people who already live there, they can depress or raise housing prices.
And since U.S. troops tend to be young males, retail tends to be fast food, pawn shops, souvenir shops, and the sex industry, especially in areas where most soldiers are single or on unaccompanied tours.
"It is not at all surprising, then, that as the U.S. soldiers move out of Itaewon, the real estate values go up and shops which can afford high rents move in," she said in an e-mail.
Yongsan has both helped and hurt Seoul’s economy, according to Park Jong-gu, a tourism professor at Dongguk University who studied Yongsan’s economic impact on the city for the Seoul Development Institute. In a 2004 report, he said the base had created jobs for Koreans and helped boost the local economy, but it had also prevented development because it takes up a large chunk of space in the geographic heart of the city.
Back then he predicted that Itaewon’s economy was faltering. The neighborhood’s reputation as a shopping mecca was fading because of its poor-quality merchandise, and because police were cracking down on the sale of fake brand-name goods typically sold there, he said.
Today, Park says Itaewon’s future is brighter because the area is becoming more diverse, catering to more than just the American military population. He said businesses in the area must continue to market themselves to people with money to spend if Itaewon is to remain trendy, he said. "Creating a luxurious environment is critical," he said.