Richmond, the once quiet, agriculture-fringed suburb, became, in recent years, the flashier Chinatown, with the cool, kitschy stores at Aberdeen Mall and the night market that gets crammed on summer nights.
The Canada Line opened it up even more to the region, and by 2010, it became the place with the Olympic Oval.
And with the Oval has come the anticipated development that surrounds it, an entirely new 140-acre community, like a bigger version of Vancouver's Coal Harbour. New projects clustered around the Oval will draw a projected 45,000 residents to the former industrial land, transforming the hodge podge of seventies cinderblock buildings into a gleaming luxury waterfront community.
The city has long had its eye on developing that massive plot of waterfront land where the Oval now sits. When they put an adjacent 17 acres on the market to help offset costs of building the Olympic facility, they thought they'd make around $40-million. Instead, a bidding war drove the price up to around $141-million. The Hong Kong-based developer, Aspac, bought up yet more land, all the way to Dinsmore Bridge, and is building a massive luxury condo development that sandwiches the Oval on either side.
Today, cranes dot the skyline as residential towers go up. The Oval has become a useful multisport community and fitness centre. A big public seaside walkway and park is going in, as well as shops and restaurants. In a few weeks, the first residents will take occupancy.
It will be a pedestrian-friendly community. The city has a plan to create shorter city blocks, unlike the existing ones, which are as long as Las Vegas streets, and just as unwalkable.
"This is all on purpose," says Richmond's manager of policy planning, Terry Crow. "The goal was to not make the Oval a box in the field and have all this parking around it. In creating an urban community, we wanted people to live and play in the area, and be able to walk."
The city has long had major plans for Richmond to become a more urban, modern-day version of the suburbs. The arrival of the Olympic Oval and the Canada Line was a major shot in the arm. Last year, there was $4-billion worth of development on the books in Richmond's City Centre alone. Aspac's 25-building River Green complex on the south bank of the Fraser River is massive, but it's only one of the 10 projects currently under way. Vancouver's Hungerford Properties aims to build a 400-unit complex across from the waterfront park that will include a 15-storey tower, which is the highest they can go. They are still in discussion with the city.
"The rate of change is incredible," says Andrew Hungerford, who's part of the family business with his brother, Michael. "What's happening there is amazing. The neighbourhood already has a critical mass for a vibrant community. As you move north, the next phase is being developed. That's us."
The Hungerford family goes back five generations in the Lower Mainland. They are one of the first families to build in Kerrisdale, and one of the 10 families that founded the Vancouver Foundation. Their father and partner, George, was an Olympic gold medal rower in 1964, and he received the Order of Canada. Their great great grandfather, William Farrell, formed BC Tel, which is now Telus.
They've owned the parcel of Richmond land they want to redevelop for the last 35 years, which has been used for commercial business, such as a furniture distributor. Businesses will have to move out, but the city promises around 4,500 or so new jobs will move in.
"We really want to make Richmond higher density without displacing any older housing product," says Michael. "It's creating a fresh downtown instead of putting density in other places. I think for that reason, the city plan was very supported by Richmond, because it was easy to accept that kind of change. It's harder to accept change on Cambie in Vancouver, where you have single-family dwellings. People don't want to live next to high-rises there."
Richmond city is certainly adopting a proactive stance as it pushes for change. The city even negotiated a unique deal to get developers to help finance the roughly $20-million cost of a fifth Canada Line SkyTrain station, at No. 3 and Sea Island Highway.
"We said, 'no high-rises there unless a number of developers get together and contribute around $20-million,'" says Mr. Crow. "That was done a year ago.
"I don't know how many dwelling units will be there, but a number of developers will contribute another $7,000 to $9,000 a unit to build the station. It goes to TransLink. They will physically build this thing.
"Whatever those units cost, $200,000, or $300,000, or $400,000, another few thousand is peanuts. Nobody balked at all. That's a huge thing."
It is a brilliant move. But now that the precedent has been set, will other developers want to foot the cost of more stations?
"As far as I know, it's the first model," says Mr. Crow. "Development where we want it can be used to build a rapid transit asset. We have a formal agreement to collect the money."
If all goes according to plan, the Richmond we know now will hardly be recognizable 20 years down the road.
"Richmond will be a bustling, vibrant place to work and live and play right on the water, with all of these new 15-storey buildings with schools, and all [the] amenities you see in downtown Vancouver," says Michael. "That is the future. The thing that's exciting about my industry and being in this place that has great fundamental growth behind it, is this will happen in our generation. In the next 20 years, we will see massive change. Just like Yaletown and Surrey and Metrotown. Richmond is the next."
And with less reluctance than Vancouver, Richmond is welcoming the transformation.
"It's in transition because we are coming from a great big rural community in many ways," says Mr. Crow. "But the vision is very clear – that that's what we want."