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Richmond works to become a city

April 29th, 2010 · 26 Comments

I spent a lot of time in Richmond in the late 1970s and the 1980s. I worked as a commercial fisherman with boats based in Steveston for several years, had a set of relatives there and took my son to Suzuki violin classes every week for more years than I care to remember. It was the archetypal suburb, a place so devoid of anything approaching culture that we routinely drove into the big city if we wanted decent Chinese food or a drink someplace besides the Steveston Hotel.

At the time, it seemed like nothing could be done to make this into anything resembling an urban place.

Now, it has an elevated transit line that runs through more towers all the time. It has something that looks like a main downtown crossroads. It has fabulous Chinese restaurants. And now it’s even going to have that ultimate central Vancouver perk — its own high-end neighbourhood, as I wrote in the Globe today.

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  • “The view in front of the latest set of luxury condos to be unveiled here is Vancouver-beautiful.” Yes madam we know the drill . . . Luxury, only luxury!

    I saw Gloria ovulating over it on telly last night.

    FCN redux complete with lying luminous model: more, yet more of the same. I thought we had grown just a little bit from that!

    Of course, ” The mountains in the distance are spectacular”. Oh don’t forget the mountains . . .

    “And, in the other direction, the clustered towers of the downtown poke up, a beacon indicating some of the best restaurants in the city.” Would they be as “best” as Soho, London; or Grant Street San Francisco; or Delores Street Mexico City; or Fan Tan Alley, Victoria City or I dunno . . . maybe Beijing?

    Towers towers and the towers . . . and all the little ticky tackys all in a row . . .

    Uh I remember me and the kids and Mummie picking blueberries in that spot long long ago . . .

  • Yunno it would be great if Jim Cheng would learn something about urbanism.

    His Richmond thingie looks like he’s having trouble getting something out of his fundamental orifice after he’d been force fed a ten year old meat loaf out of Gloria Child”s cook book!

    Lewis has been trying to sensitise the city and Metro to urbanism for, to my knowledge, at least ten years: listen to him Jim!

    Why doesn’t someone learn something for a change . . .

  • Joe Just Joe

    I applaud the work that Richmond has done over the last few years and it’s plan for the future. The other suburbs should be looking to them for inspiration.
    While I can not stand a lot of JKMCs work, Aspac will ensure this is a quality development. Heck they were able to make James Cheng design Harbour Green 1 and 2 probably his best local work.

  • False Creep

    I agree that Richmond is an interesting example of how suburbs can try to overcome the problems they created for themselves. The money they spent on the oval will look like a bargain if this all goes ahead.

    One minor quibble : the name “River Green” makes me cringe. I’ve seen the Colorado river run lime-green due to eutrophication. I hope the Fraser is never green. How about a Chinese name instead?

  • Lewis N. Villegas

    Hi Urbie…

    “Lewis has been trying to sensitize the city and Metro to urbanism for, to my knowledge, at least ten years…”. Yes, bien sur, but from the wrong side of the money equation!

    My question to planners at the City of Richmond a few years ago was also from the wrong side of the development equation, “Are you serious about urban design?”

    I don’t think I got an answer. Here’s what was worrying me then, and now…

    1. Liquifaction— If we ever get a big quake, the shaking of the earth will turn the land in Richmond to soup. Small buildings are on floating foundations, and large buildings are on friction piles. I worry about all that. The parking lots and the streets are going to be a mess. How are we going to get emergency services through? I do not know what the Skytrain is supported on below grade, maybe that will turn out to be the life line. I hope so. But Skytrain’s reach covers only a very small area.

    2. Superblocks—Richmond has the same platting (grid system) as Vancouver. Except that in Richmond, only the arterials connect. Many of the streets inside the half-mile grid dead end. The result is not much talked about. Since all trips end up on the arterials, there is rush hour traffic all day long. Oh… and you can’t get anywhere by walking. So, the hallmark of good urbanism is lost.

    3. Flight Path—you’d think that all the dead end streets would create peaceful, pastoral settings for single family residential. Think again. Many parts of Richmond are on the flight path to YVR.

    4. 10-storey “cap”—I’m going by memory here. There is a height restriction imposed for buildings by air traffic, and my recollection is 10-storeys. Have you seen the skyline of Richmond driving over the Oak Street Bridge? Have you wondered about the dumb looking flat tops aligning to a datum not immediately obvious to the roving eye?

    5. No. 3 Road—I remember my high school principal correcting me that it was the “Westminster Highway,” not the “New Westminster Highway”. I still prefer the reasoning behind my place name mistake. Slice it any way you want, but the “main drag” in Richmond is a “number”. How awful is that urbanism? To add insult to injury, the underside of the Skytrain strung along the east side of No. 3 Road has been treated with a 30-foot concrete sidewalk. A Barcelona Rambla wanna-be-that-never-will-be. The piers for the Skytrain have been lovingly covered in trellis work and plant materials, and surrounded by park benches looking out. What are the park benches looking out onto? Parking lots and 6 lanes of traffic—Richmond brand urbanism.

    The truthful answer to my query would have been “No”. However, the discussion was taking place inside the new city hall building where every time you went through a door, it seemed, you had to swipe a magnetized card á-la-Mission Impossible.

    If there was ever an argument for strong regional government, then Richmond after the”Big One” may well be the tragic reminder that we got it wrong. Some places are not suitable for urbanism.

  • Evil Eye

    So an elevated transit line makes Richmond a city? What use is it for residents in Richmond, except going to Vancouver and it is totally useless for Richmond residents to use it for travel in Richmond.

  • Keith

    I first saw pictures of this project on the front page of one of the Chinese language papers about 3-4 weeks ago.
    Interesting that it has only come to light now in the English media.

  • mezzanine

    Richmond was able to line its ducks up around the skating oval nicely. They sold the surrounding lands at the height of the market ~ 2 yrs ago to pay off the oval construction costs, with money left over to buy the garden city lands from the feds/musqueam. The dike path has been upgraded recently, and it is a nice walk from aberdeen station to the oval.

  • Evil Eye

    Mezz, old boy, it rains and snows here too.

  • Joe Just Joe

    I see Zwei wasn’t able to come back with a repsonse to my questions in the other thread so now he is using one of his other alias. Good sport Zwei. Maybe your friends in the Valley can learn a thing or two from Richomd and one day you too can enjoy a rapid transit line.
    If the urbanists are interested I highly recommend reading Richmonds City Centre Development Plan, almost 300pages of info. While I’m sure there is room for improvement in it, it is still one of the better plans I’ve seen.

  • mezzanine

    “Mezz, old boy, it rains and snows here too.”

    And that rain and snow, of course, is the fault of the automated metro that is the canada line.

  • Reed

    I think Gordon Price’s comment tells us a lot. He says the Aspac plan is “the embracing of urbanity on a scale that wouldn’t have been imaginable a decade ago.” For Price scale (density) and urbanity appear to be synonyms. That explains a lot about where Vancouver is at now. Urbanity is far more complex than scale, density or massive luxury real estate developments.

  • Flaneur

    I work in Richmond, but live in Vancouver. One thing I can say about Richmond having a downtown core is that it lacks public space. I go out on a lunch break, and there’s nowhere to sit or read the news (or your favorite civic affairs blog on you blackberry).

    Vancouver has many places to walk, sit, or just “be”. I find Richmond’s city centre to be confining and uncomfortable. Too many parking lots, not enough parks. (Not where I work anyway)

  • Lewis N. Villegas

    How ’bout a link to a pdf, Joe?

  • spartikus
  • Joe Just Joe

    You can use Spartikus link or the one below which is directly to the pdf. Please note it is 17Mb in size and will take a bit to download.

    http://www.richmond.ca/__shared/assets/city_centre556.pdf

  • Lewis N. Villegas

    7.1 Cities and regions are leading generators of national wealth.

    2.4.3 Urban codes will curb the worst excesses of the market, promote best practices, and enshrine shared visions of place in clear language and visual communication.

    —The Gastown Principles [LNV 2010]

    Thanks Joe! Two snippets of urbanist thinking to stress that development per se is a good thing. And that there are clear spheres of action for both local government and the private sector. No one area carries the full responsibility.

  • Bill Lee

    @Flaneur // Apr 30, 2010 at 1:29 pm Comment #13

    Sit? You can sit in a mall like civilized people in between shopping.
    The very idea of sitting out in public! Nonsense! Vancouver is so backward when they allow public places and public seating–like animals!!

    How will you get people to spend and drive the local enconomy if they are not in the market or mall and wandering around shopping in non-work time! That’s why we have TV adverts in the home.
    Have they not read Torsten Hagerstrand or Henri Lefebvre?

  • MB

    Good urbanism starts by creating great public spaces.

  • MB

    The highest point in Richmond is 1m below sea level at the average high tide. Sea levels are expected to rise by at least a half metre by the end of the century (IPCC), more likely by several metres (additional research since the last IPCC report).

    The soils consist of deep, soft silts overlaying sand, with a bit of peat thrown in, and will not support the weight of higher dikes without sinking at predictable rates. In fact, most tall buildings there are sinking, albeit slowly.

    The neighbouring river side channels are not being dredged any more, and are silting up. The water from freshet has increasingly fewer places to go.

    So if some one asks if Richmond is more prone to flooding than the average city (let alone earthquakes), you can say with assurance, “Yes”.

  • Lewis,

    I find you a bit unfair on Richmond.
    Sure there is lot of pitfall as you have mentioned, and if I believe a real estate agent there:
    You can build 4000+ sq feet MacMansion on 66foot lot, but there is noway to split the lot in 2 to build two reasonably sized SFH, don’t even think of row housing.

    But you have to consider where Richmond come from.
    What you are criticizing is mostly the scores of the past, not the more recent devlopment:
    they could be not as sharp as wanted, but they are certainly in the right direction.

    Some city with high profile mayor rename their Highway into Bld, but do nothing more. Richmond kept the N3 road name for its main artery, but did appropriate landscaping to give the effective “boulevard feeling”:
    N3 road is not 6 lanes anymore: it is 4 lane divided by a median:
    it could be still lined by strip mall, and trees are still young but you can see that new building relate rather well to the street (that is more noticeable on Westminster rd at N3) and the whole thing is very promising.

    You criticize the flat top looking of Oak bridge: from the Canada line Fraser crossing it remain me an European city (flat top too, 33 meters in Paris, so not far from the 10 Richmond 10 storey), or Washington DC…

    We can only regret that Richmond didn’t transform this flight path height limit in an opportunity to use a more European or DC esque, building form (like they did at Olympic village).

    I personally believe that in GVRD…Richmond is the suburb may be the less blessed by nature, but the one at the forefront of good redevelopment.

    So just hope they do it right with the Gadencity land too ( http://voony.wordpress.com/2010/02/03/the-richmonds-garden-city-lands/ )

  • Lewis N. Villegas

    voony, I’m supposed to be reading a 300-page plan, not answering your good points.

    I am “tough” on Richmond. I hope I am not being unfair (say, by concentrating my comments on negatives, rather than positives).

    Richmond is not Paris, or Washington, not by a long, long mile. I mean, on the one hand we have the capitals of two great nations, on the other a Vancouver suburb.

    It’s not just the buildings that make the urbanism, its the structure of the place, and MBs “creating great public spaces.” We don’t have to build the Tuilleries or the Washington Mall to have a great place. A lot of the best squares in Rome measure 140 x 180 feet. You can’t park more than 80 cars in that, but boy can you get a knock-out neighbourhood heart out of it if you set it up right. Is that a private or a public responsibility?

    N3 Road between Westminster Highway and Bridgeport is a mess. A mess designed twice in the last 10 years or so. Neither time with any sense of urbanism. Yes, it is better for being 4 lanes rather than two. However, that is just going to get us into the dilemma that Skytrain does not provide local service, so the road capacity has to remain high in order for people to go shopping, work, etc..

    Oooh… and I am not ready to sing the praises of the OV until I get to taste that pudding.

    However, before we can pull the lid off on a discussion of good urbanism, we have to begin with the basics of the suitability of the site itself.

    MB has provided additional detail on the ecological concerns. Talk to a soils engineer or geo-tech, and they will go into a lot more detail, with more accurate understanding than either MB or I have, on the subsoil conditions in that city. Not good.

    Let’s hope the plan is better.

  • MB

    There might be a vision or two articulated for Richmond over the recent and mid-range past, but if one is to articulate a vision for the long-range future, one should start thinking about a floating city.

    Is there such a thing as aquatic urbanism?

    Otherwise Vancouver and other cities with higher ground may well have to accept hordes of climate change and earthquake refugees from Richmond and parts of Delta.

  • MB

    Lewis, electric low-floor trolleys on a dense stop pattern on the main streets of Richmond will help fill the kilometre service gap between the Canada Line stations.

  • MB

    @ Lewis: “We don’t have to build the Tuilleries or the Washington Mall to have a great place. A lot of the best squares in Rome measure 140 x 180 feet. You can’t park more than 80 cars in that, but boy can you get a knock-out neighbourhood heart out of it if you set it up right. Is that a private or a public responsibility?”

    I’d say that it’s a public responsibility, and it should extend to the streets that radiate from the heart. Developers could include them in their projects much as the seawalls and parks of Coal Harbour and False Creek were included.

    Here’s to knock out neighbourhood hearts.

  • I write from the train heading between Toronto, which has more urbanity than I could handle, and Windsor, where the Ontario Association of Architects is holding its annual convention. I will be talking about the lessons Canadian architects can learn from European cities, so I found this conversation most interesting. However, a quick tale about Richmond.

    My first project as a private developer was the rezoning of the BC Packers waterfront lands in Steveston between No 2 Road the old BC Packers Head Office. It was 1981 and our plans called for a new waterfront community integrated with fishboats and heritage restoration of cannery buildings. A new waterfront walkway, school and other community amenities were proposed.

    The housing was predominantly multi-family with 1540 units in low and mid-rise forms.

    To this day I vividly remember the first time I presented the plans to a local politician. Rather than start with then mayor Gil Blair, a colleague and I went to see Harold Steves…he offered to meet us at 7:30 on a dark evening at his home at the end of Steveston Highway. I remember arriving in my dark blue suit and shiny italian shoes (that’s what developers wore in those days) and feeling very out of place.

    The front yard was cluttered with rusting farm machinery and debris. We were very apprehensive about what Steves would think of our plan that would more than double the population of Steveston.

    Once inside, we unrolled our drawings and I started to describe the terraced buildings overlooking the Paramount Boat Basin and a variety of low and mid-rise apartments, with some zero-lotline single family homes along Moncton Street. I remember preparing some of the drawings myself by tracing a photo of boats over the Arbutus Village mid-rises (another Narod project) and Richard Henriquez’s False Creek Coop. We were going to bring some of Vancouver’s urbanity to Richmond. (Remember, at the time the only buildings above three storeys were the three rental highrises that Ben Dayson had built…

    I’ll never forget Steves first words….Can’t you add some more units?

    He then went on to explain. It was his dream to see the old Interurban line restored to Steveston, and he quite rightly noted that the best way to achieve this would be to have sufficient density around the end of the line.

    I could go on for hours reminiscing about the rest of the story…don’t worry, I won’t other than to say this project, along with the Spetifore Lands was responsible for the GVRD losing its regional planning function. That’s because after Richmond Council approved our rezoning, the GVRD rejected it on the grounds it would result in the loss of industrial lands! That was in 1983…exactly the same discussion that is taking place today. I remember lobbying many of the GVRD directors and eventually got the project approved.

    Sadly, by the time the approvals were granted, Narod was in receivership and I couldn’t find another developer who would build the project as planned. Some of the multi-family parcels were built out as conventional single family homes on winding, disconnected streets (as Lewis pointed out were the norm), although ultimately Adera and others came in and built the lagoons and multi-family developments.

    I mention this because I do feel that in the subsequent years Steveston has developed into one of the better communities in Metro…while parts are a bit too Disneylandish for my taste, it is a very nice place to be, especially on a sunny weekend.

    If you are not familiar with it, go down and buy some fresh prawns and have some fish and chips, and take a walk along the new waterfront walkway and visit the restored fisherman’s huts, etc. It’s all very good.

    And if you want to read more about I had to take a busload of Steveston merchants down to La Connor to convince hem to support our rezoning….well, you’ll have to wait for my book!