SEOUL — The twice-delayed expansion of the U.S. military’s future flagship installation in South Korea — so large that officials have likened it to building a small city — is on track to be completed in 2016-17, according to a top Army official.
Forty percent of construction at Camp Humphreys has been completed, including the initial development of the site, and planning and construction on the rest of the expansion is under way, according to Katherine Hammack, the Army’s assistant secretary for installations, energy and environment.
“They’re on track, they’re on schedule, so we do think we’re going to reach substantial completion by 2017,” said Hammack, who visited Humphreys in March for the first time in two years for a progress report.
Some small projects will remain at Humphreys after that date, she said.
“There’s always the final finishing touches — the road that might not yet be paved or the last motor pool that might not yet be completed,” she said. But most units slated for relocation will be able to move by then and the majority of bases they vacate will be ready for return to South Korea.
A shortage of off-post housing for the thousands of troops and civilians projected to move to the area also could potentially slow the relocation, though the military says Korean developers are expected to fill the gap now that they see the long-delayed project is finally moving forward.
Humphreys is the centerpiece of the military’s plan to close dozens of U.S. bases in and north of Seoul, allowing the U.S. to consolidate its footprint into regional hubs in Pyeongtaek and Daegu. The $10 billion-plus expansion of the former helicopter base includes about 500 projects and construction of more than 1,000 buildings.
U.S. Forces Korea and South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense Relocation Office told Stripes last year that 53 percent of the expansion had been completed as of May 2013, much more than what Hammack had indicated. USFK said the rest would be finished at a pace of about 15 percent each year with the exception of minor projects such as landscaping.
USFK did not provide an explanation for the discrepancy with Hammack’s figures.
The relocation has faced multiple delays due to funding and construction problems. The move was initially scheduled to take place in 2008, but was postponed until 2012 and then to 2016.
Hammack said readying the site for construction has proved to be the most difficult part of the expansion but is nearly completed. Flooding required extensive landfill, plaguing the early years of the project.
“Most of the area is currently rice fields, right along a river,” USFK told Stripes in 2006. “Rice fields are designed to flood. The rice fields must be filled in, just as is done all over Korea when new towns are built.”
A 'narrow window'
An additional 8,000 USFK-affiliated personnel, including military, civilians, contractors and retirees, are expected to move to the Humphreys area by the end of 2017.
Of those, about 1,100 are expected to be housed on post, and the military believes it is 30 percent to 50 percent short of its projected need for off-post housing for 2017.
“Because the move to Humphreys has taken longer than initially conceived, part of this plan is both Gen. [Curtis] Scaparrotti and myself explaining that we are committed to a 2017 end state move, so the pieces will need to be in place in ‘16, and here we are in ‘14, so it’s a fairly narrow window,” Hammack said.
Several Korean industries are also planning to open facilities in the area, she said, putting even more of a squeeze on the housing market.
Despite the current lack of supply, Hammack said interest among Korean developers in building rentals for USFK appears to be high.
While at Humphreys, she met with 200 South Korean developers, real estate professionals and local government officials at a forum to explain USFK’s requirements for off-post housing. Interest was so high that attendance was capped.
Under the military’s Rental Partnership Program, housing that has yet to be built can essentially be pre-certified for rental to U.S. troops and government civilians if the landlord agrees to comply with the military’s building requirements.
The military wants troops to live within a 30-minute drive of the base. Most will be stationed at Humphreys on relatively short tours of nine months or one or two years, Hammack said.
“They (Korean developers) heard the message,” Hammack said. “One of the challenges is they want financial guarantees, and that’s not something we will give. We’re not going to be buying off-post housing, we’re not going to be contracting for long-term leases.”
Scaparrotti, the USFK commander, spoke at the forum, which was closed to media. The command would not release a transcript of his remarks, saying the forum was “just for the Korean businesses and leaders to talk with USFK and Army leadership.”
Expecting hiccups along the way
Meeting target dates also could depend on the unexpected.
The military has yet to release a full list of the problems that delayed the opening of Humphreys High School last August by a semester. According a source with knowledge of the project, many of the deficiencies, including installation of fire detectors in refrigerators, were caused by translation problems between the U.S. military and the South Korean contractor.
Additionally, the U.S. military failed to detect some mistakes during a pre-construction review of Samsung C&T Corp.’s design plans.
Asked about the problems, Hammack said there was “an extensive punchlist of things that needed to be completed” as is typical for any construction project.
“I think that any time you take on a project this big, there are going to be hiccups that occur along the way, and the school was a great testing ground for all of the details that need to be ironed out … and to tighten up the teaming that it’s going to take in order to ensure the base is complete and ready on time,” she said.
Hammack said that as Humphreys construction approaches the end state, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been asked to increase its oversight of the project.
“My understanding is there are now weekly reviews of each of the projects to ensure that we don’t have balls that are dropped or confusion, and that things are clarified ahead of time,” she said.
She said the U.S. military’s budget-tightening won’t affect the relocation: “Even though budget impacts are affecting our operations in many locations, there’s a firm commitment here.”