It's a strange new world journey from Richmond's Lansdowne Skytrain station to River Green, an ambitious new development that will comprise 12 acres along the Fraser.
The 10-minute walk reveals a mildly dystopian landscape full of industrial warehouses and at least half a dozen new construction sites.
Amidst the Chinese and English signage, a construction worker's thick Waterford brogue stands out. "I don't know how anyone can afford to buy here," comments the young man who fled the recession in Ireland to build new luxury condos for Chinese immigrants in this suburb of Vancouver.
But there are few signs of economic downturn here, in this fast developing corner of Richmond, a city of 190,000 where more than half the population is Asian and 60 per cent are new immigrants. Indeed the new developments are testament to Richmond's sea change from sleepy agricultural suburb to burgeoning resort town.
Before you can really experience the new riverfront area – a departure from traditional construction sites that looked inward to the city rather than outward to the north-facing view of water and mountains– you must traverse an area that feels somewhat Blade Runner-ish. Flat, empty landscape full of bulldozers and earth mounds on one side, industrial warehouses on the other. And then suddenly there it is – the Olympic Oval – a build-it-and-they-will-come Olympic behemoth– that doesn't so much loom large on the horizon as overpower it completely.
A few hundred metres westward, the new Jim Cheng-designed River Green peers out from behind a temporary earth berm, encased by a vaguely Babylonian-looking wall, like Richmond's own Forbidden City.
In spite of the area's much-touted walkability, there are very few pedestrians on the road, apart from the construction workers, and the brave few are dwarfed by giant, suburban-warrior style SUVS.
But it's early days and this is only the first phase of a larger mixed-use project that Richmond councillors hope will help extend the city centre to the river's edge, and encourage a high-density community they hope will grow to more than 100,000. After all, it took three years for that other Olympic Village – on Vancouver's False Creek – to move from ghost town to something resembling a community.
And unlike that Olympic Village, this one has almost completely sold out – with $300-million worth of sales to date. This may be why the marketing (at least the English language variety) appears so laissez-faire. Compared to Vancouver, where condo marketers go to rather extreme lengths to lure buyers, Magnum's website info on River Green is relatively bare bones.
It also enjoys a much healthier developer/city relationship, as enthusiastic councillors hope its mixed-use nature and blend of public and private space will usher in a new urbanity.
Architect Jim Cheng says the reason this project has been successful, is that it hasn't catered to "some developer's idea of exporting 'Chinese' values to Vancouver." Asian buyers, says Mr. Cheng, don't want "gaudy, neo-classical villas" like the ones that proliferate in the better suburbs of Shanghai and Beijing, but rather "Vancouverist values and lifestyle."
In addition to leading the way in the city of Richmond's plan to engage with the river – ignored for decades in favour of the highway – Hong Kong-based developer ASPAC (known locally for its work in Coal Harbour), says Mr. Cheng, has "given Asian buyers what they really want." Namely orientation toward the view, maximizing security services, and creating an environment that favours multigenerational living (from simulated golf rooms and shuttle buses for seniors to music rooms with pianos for children to practise in.)
At first glance, Phase 1 of River Green – comprising eight buildings and 458 units built around extensive landscaping and water elements that fuse private gardens with community amenities – reads like a hybrid of Mr. Cheng's past projects and influences. The concrete pavilions and terraces reveal his Ericksonian pedigree; the spa-like ambiance borrows from recent hotel projects like the Shangri-la and the Fairmont Pacific; and the East-meets-West feel is underlined from building materials to landscaping to architecture.
A thorough tour of Phase 1 can take more than an hour, and yet the cluster of buildings never matches the physical imposition of the neighbouring Olympic oval onto the landscape. Instead Mr. Cheng's use of orthogonal and curvilinear forms create a sense of movement, texture and organic connection to site.
In contrast to the rectilinear buildings nearby, closed off to each other and to the surrounding area, Mr. Cheng's use of forms angled off the grid opens up units to the water and mountain views and creates a more dynamic architecture.
Everything radiates off of the central amenities building that welcomes residents with a Douglas fir canopy (playing off a similar one in the Oval) grounded by limestone walls. Once inside the teak-panelled hallways offset by Joel Berman textured glass, a trip to the swimming pool and a glance at its wooden beams angled westward in a fan-like gesture reveals the rotational shift that anchors the entire complex.
River Green engages with the public realm – unusual in suburban, often walled-off Richmond developments – at key directional junctures. The western interface, looking toward another soon-to-be-developed-by-ASPAC land parcel and beyond to the busy Number 2 Road, offers angled concrete terracing – which should be enjoyed equally by Ericksonphiles as by skateboarders – and a mix of native and more Asian vegetation. It's also flanked by a skywalk featuring an LED installation of a heron in flight that is illuminated at night.
The eastern edge is demarcated by vegetable gardens and native plantings, while the southern end is punctuated by a very architectural concrete pyramidical fountain.
The northern side, really an extension of the inner courtyards, will be joined directly to the river's edge and its pedestrian walkways.
Ultimately the development – and its Fraser River and mountain-oriented views – reveals the true value of this place: land, sky and water. If fresh air and nature are the new luxury amenities, then there is no contest with Shanghai or Beijing; Richmond wins hands down.