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George Wong of Magnum Projects stands in front of the site of Phase One of the River Green condominium project, next to Richmond's Olympic Oval, on April 28, 2010.Brett Beadle/The Globe and Mail

The view in front of the latest set of luxury condos to be unveiled here is Vancouver-beautiful.

The mountains in the distance are spectacular under a wide blue sky dotted with puffy white spring clouds. A pastoral walkway winds along the water, rippling under a light wind. And, in the other direction, the clustered towers of the downtown poke up, a beacon indicating some of the best restaurants in the city.

This isn't Vancouver, though. It's Richmond, the city that used to be one of Vancouver's main bedroom suburbs.

It's also where Aspac Developments Ltd., the company that built some of Vancouver's highest-end condos on the Coal Harbour waterfront, has decided to create a luxurious spa-like condo community with 2,600 units, along with clusters of urban shopping, packed densely into 12 hectares of land along the Fraser River.

Other Vancouver suburbs have big developments, but the River Green project will help Richmond create a dense central neighbourhood of 120,000 that extends from its main intersection, No. 3 Road and Westminster Highway. That makes this development a symbolic marker of Richmond's passage from suburb to city.

"It's the embracing of urbanity on a scale that wouldn't have been imaginable a decade ago," said urban specialist Gordon Price, a former Vancouver city councillor. "It's a sign of Richmond being willing to take a chance."

With Aspac's emphasis on a high-end product, it's also a sign that Vancouver isn't the only place that can sell itself as an urban resort. And, with Richmond's decision to include affordable housing in the project - either a shelter, supported housing, or low-cost rental units - it is demonstrating that it is also prepared to tackle urban problems.

For most of its existence, Richmond, built on a river delta just to the south of Vancouver, was renowned for the way it epitomized suburbia. At one time mostly farmland, with the fishing village of Steveston in the southwest, it became known for its generic split levels and monster homes on cul-de-sacs, all set inside giant square tracts of land bordered by six-lane roads. Shopping was concentrated in giant malls and big-box stores along No. 3 Road.

It also focused all its energies on the interior of the island and ignored the water surrounding it.

That's been changing for several years and is going to change even more.

"The Canada Line transformed our city," said Richmond Mayor Malcolm Brodie. In preparation for the line's trajectory down No. 3 Road, his city planners created a completely new downtown plan with "transit villages" around each of the stations that would create a dense central city with a population three times its current level of about 40,000.

"And the push now is to take our city centre and push it all the way to the waterfront where River Green is," he said.

Aspac was encouraged to develop such a large and expensive project in Richmond for several reasons. For one, at 45 per cent of the population, the Chinese have brought new wealth into the city and helped support a Chinese-restaurant boom that has put Richmond on the foodie map.

Even more important, the city had shown it was eager to grow and encourage density, say the project's architect, James Cheng, and its marketing rep, George Wong. "I think their vision is what sold Aspac," Mr. Cheng said.

He will be designing a development that is both similar to and quite different from the Vancouver model. Like the Vancouver version, the 2,600 units will be part of a mixed-use community, with retail, businesses, parks and civic facilities embedded.

Unlike Vancouver, it won't be towers - the flight path for planes heading into the neighbouring airport prohibit that - and it won't be quite as dense. Instead, it will be low-rise, with a heavy emphasis on landscaping, water features and a connection to the nearby river.

That's the Richmond model for urban development.

Special to The Globe and Mail