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neighbourhood watch

For condo marketer Bob Rennie, the Mandarin Residences project that will soon be under construction next to the Canada Line's Brighouse station represents the shape of what's to come in Richmond's city centre.

Developments are sprouting up along No. 3 Road at rapid-transit stops. The Mandarin is a prime example of No. 3 Road's transformation from a long stretch of strip malls into a growing parade of high-rise residential and commercial buildings.

The pace of change in Richmond is accelerating as city hall puts the finishing touches on its official community plan, with a public hearing on Nov. 19. The goal is to clear the way for clusters of "urban villages" around transit nodes, while still preserving much of Richmond's suburban flavour.

The Mandarin will have two 16-storey towers, injecting energy into the Brighouse area, said Mr. Rennie, owner of Rennie Marketing Systems, which specializes in selling new condos. While Chinese signs are featured prominently outside retail stores and restaurants in Richmond's business and shopping district, Mr. Rennie has opted to take a low-key approach to luring buyers with roots in China.

On boards outside the empty lot where the Mandarin will rise, English signs emphasize the 13-minute SkyTrain ride to Vancouver International Airport or 23-minute trip to downtown Vancouver. Glossy pamphlets are in English, with photos of Caucasians socializing with Asians, Mr. Rennie points out. "If we print brochures in Chinese, somehow it comes off as patronizing and something that is not available to the local market," he said.

Mr. Rennie said he is targeting a local market that includes everyone from immigrant investors to parents seeking to buy condos for their children. He is tapping into Richmond's population, which is two-thirds visible minorities, and other cities in the Lower Mainland. Roughly 290 units have been sold so far out of 347 Mandarin condos on offer. Rennie Marketing agent Diana Wang estimates that nearly 90 per cent of those condos sold have been snapped up by ethnic Chinese buyers, ranging from parents of "westernized" post-secondary students to recent immigrants aiming to rent out their places for investment purposes.

The Wall Group of Companies and the Fairborne Group are the Mandarin's developers, and they have collaborated with TransLink and the City of Richmond to play up rapid transit. Brighouse is the first Canada Line station that residents in Richmond's city centre can hop on, and there will be a new terminal for buses after the Mandarin opens in 2015.

But in sprawling Richmond, developments that are far from the city's core must appeal to suburban homebuyers who rely heavily on their cars. For instance, The Gardens condo project being developed by the Townline Group of Companies will be the site of six low-rises of four storeys each – marketed as a 10-minute drive from the airport. The Gardens site was once owned by former B.C. premier Bill Vander Zalm and operated as the Fantasy Gardens theme park.

"Richmond really makes a conscious effort to focus development where it is appropriate," said Wayne Craig, Richmond's director of development. He notes that the provincial agricultural land reserve accounts for nearly 40 per cent of Richmond's land base, maintaining a rural undertone in a modern era.

Longer term, Richmond is contemplating ways to ease building height restrictions of 47 metres above sea level. Transport Canada regulates the height, but city hall is optimistic about opening talks in 2013 with the Vancouver International Airport Authority, Transport Canada and various agencies to examine the merits of allowing higher buildings.

Richmond's official community plan raises the possibility of letting developers construct taller towers in an area just east of City Hall, said Terry Crowe, Richmond's manager in the policy planning division. Mr. Crowe cautions that it could take until 2016 to win approval for relaxing limits. More than a decade ago, Ottawa allowed the Canadian flag atop City Hall to be tied to a pole that extends slightly above height limits so that the Maple Leaf properly flaps in the wind.