I have to break Jangji up into two not-quite-symmetrical parts, as the east and west sides of the station bear almost no relation to each other.
There isn’t a whole lot of interest around here, most of the area around Exits 1 and 2 being taken up by a forest of apartment towers called Songpa Pinetown. The rest is a nice enough but quite sleepy and unremarkable neighborhood of homes and small businesses. The one thing of interest is the tiny Tahn Stream (탄천), its narrow waters and bike and walking paths a short walk down Songpa-daero (송파대로) from Exit 2, just past the sign pointing to the Special Warfare Command (특수전사령부). And, uh, that’s it. OK, over to the other side…
The neighborhood map at Noksapyeong Station has a giant blank space where the U.S. Army Yongsan garrison is located. There’s nothing, not even a label, indicating what’s there, just concentric lines that mark distance from the station arcing through the empty swath of pale green.
It’s the same thing at Jangji Station, with one small blemish: a dot labeled 가든파이브 just outside of Exit 3. But here, in complete disproportion to that small dot, the entirety of the blank space is taken up by the gargantuan Garden 5 complex. I had never heard of this place, and a quick pre-trip Google search of ‘Jangji’ turned up only a cursory mention or two, something along the lines of ‘Garden 5 is a shopping complex located next to Jangji Station.’ What is immediately clear after stepping out of the subway is that Garden 5 is an enormously ambitious undertaking. Less clear, however, is whether it’s going to pay off. Allow me to elaborate…
First, however, a word about what Garden 5 is. It’s a relatively new development covering over half a million square meters (the mall boasts 823,000 square meters of floor space, nearly twice as much as the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota) in the far southeastern corner of Seoul, near the Bundang and Seoul Ring Expressways, consisting of multiple shopping centers, a logistics center, and what is vaguely termed a ‘revitalization center.’ It’s reminiscent of the Super WalMart and Super Best Buy-populated business parks dotting exurban America, only there are less parking lots and everything is part of the same complex. It’s far beyond the scope of any other commercial development in Korea.
It’s also still very much a work in progress. The northern portion of the complex still has construction walls up, running along the sidewalk. These show computerized pictures of the finished product, complete with huge fountains, luxury shops, rooftop gardens, an ecopark, a helipad, and an 11-story central atrium bathed in light pouring down between the surrounding towers. More importantly, they also show hundreds of shoppers wandering throughout the complex.
The reality of the project, at least the present reality, is less clear. On a recent Saturday the fountains were turned off, filled only with a couple inches of stagnant rainwater, and behind a huge sculpture of two shiny metal hands playing cat’s cradle with some red string, in the central atrium, a mere couple dozen people milled about or stood in line waiting to receive gift bags handed out by a pitchwoman whose amplified voice caromed hollow and echo-y off the towers. This was the LIFE section of the complex, its main shopping area.
I walked into the nearest tower, Fashion (the others being Young, Living, and Techno), and took the escalator up, floor by floor. The first few held some shoppers, though not enough to really be described as ‘busy’ by Korean standards. The further up I went, the less shoppers there were, and by the time I reached the eight and ninth floors there were none at all, only bored-looking salespeople staring into space or absentmindedly refolding clothes. It felt like what a shopping mall would look like if it was managed by Samuel Beckett. The tenth floor of the tower wasn’t even finished, its duct work exposed and floor empty.
I eventually arrived at one of the rooftop gardens that give the complex its name, and despite it too being unfinished, it was open and usable, though I was the only person taking advantage of that fact in that particular garden. A half-dozen people could be seen on the roofs of the towers on the other side of the atrium, but in the Well-Being Garden, as the one atop the Fashion tower is called, I was all alone. Despite my increasing skepticism of the entire project, I had to admit that the rooftop gardens offered a nice getaway, affording an unimpeded view of the surrounding mountains and a moment of peace broken only by the tinny exhortations of the spokeswoman bouncing up from below.
Going down through the adjacent Young tower the scene was the same: bored salespeople killing time talking to each other on the upper floors, a smattering of customers on the lower ones. Both towers were positively swarming, though, when compared to the Tech one across the atrium. There the first floor’s desertion was tarnished only by a single, nomadic-looking convenience store, its shelves and handful of plastic stools seeming as if they’d merely settled there momentarily, awaiting the chance to move on. A handful of stalls selling items ranging from cameras to vacuums were on the second floor, but three-quarters of the floor space was empty. There were no customers, and the employees seemed so accustomed to their boredom that most of them didn’t even glance up from their TVs to register my presence. It looked as if they were squatting, in some sort of commercialized and better lit early 90’s East Berlin.
I left the LIFE section and walked down the road leading to the WORKS building where practically nothing was occupying the building and open except a couple of cafes on the first floor. A random real estate office had its lights on on the second or third floor, and a tacky wedding chapel was conducting a training session for a half-dozen employees. The TOOL building at the end of the road was the most desolate of all, with absolutely nothing going on.
Although the Garden 5 complex is new-ish, it’s not completely new. Opened ten months ago, it was constructed by the SH Corporation, the construction arm of Seoul City, at a cost of nearly 1.3 trillion won ($1.09 billion) to the city, according to the Korea Times. The project was initiated in 2002 by then-mayor Lee Myung-bak, partly to provide replacement retail space to shop owners displaced by the redevelopment of Cheonggye Stream (청계천). Only 10% took the offer, however, and low occupancy rates have, quite obviously if you visit, hamstrung the project. Construction was actually completed in December 2008, but low occupancy rates delayed opening three times. Customers don’t come because there are so many empty shops and new shops are reluctant to move in because there aren’t customers.
As anyone who’s been in Korea for a time knows, it’s never wise to write a project off here, as Koreans have a knack for making things work, for better or worse, through sheer determination alone. But walking through the complex, you get the feeling that the whole thing could just as likely go belly-up and end as a huge embarrassment for Lee and the city. The official slogan of the TOOL section perhaps portends things more accurately than it would care to: Not existed in here, not existed anywhere in the world.
Tahn Stream (탄천)
South on Songpa-daero (송파대로)
Garden 5 (가든파이브)