The value of walking

Today we had a “manager lunch” where we all went to a restaurant downtown. I rode down with my co-workers, but after I was done eating I decided to walk back on my own. It’s not a long walk, and the temps are in the 20’s today with beautiful sun. The perfect day to spend a few extra minutes outside.

I love walking to get places, because often you see things that you never would find driving a car. Today, on my walk, I saw a sign for a little shop on Kellogg Blvd called Mademoiselle Miel. It has a sign out front that said OPEN and another that said “Chocolate”. I started to walk past, and then thought, “Why not, it might be interesting.”

What I discovered was this adorable little chocolate shop that sold very delicate and unique chocolate creations. This wasn’t Linder’s chocolates, but artisanal  creations that spoke to the creativity of the creator. I tried two different ones that sounded tasty, a Smoked Scotch and Honey truffle, and a Ginger Chai truffle.

They certainly lived up to their names, as each tasted as you would expect. The flavors were strong and bold, with a really nice chocolate covering. I’m not sure that they were quite up my alley when it comes to a sweet treat, but it was a fun experience to try. They had a bunch of other ones that maybe I’ll need to try some other day.

The key point to what I wanted to share, was that walking is often the best way to experience adventures like this. I would never have stopped my car and found a parking spot if I had been driving. When you’re in a city, that is full of hundreds of different things, you can never experience them fully in a car. But on foot I could make a spur of the moment decision to try something new.

I’m glad that I did.

Some urbanism basics

Sometimes when I’m out for a run I get interesting thoughts flowing through my head, and before I’m done with my journey, I have an entire presentation and blog entry written in my head. Today was one of those days. We went for a run around the river road in Saint Paul and Minneapolis, from Ford Parkway up to Marshall/Lake street. While we were out I came across some leftover signs that are protesting the new development that is going in to the old Ford Motor Plant area of Highland Park.

There are a few people in the neighborhood who are opposed to the development. They feel it’s too dense, and will bring in the wrong kind of people, destroying the feel of the Highland Park neighborhood. They believe that it will increase traffic and lower property values, and that the neighborhood should take a slower, market-based approach. The plans that the city put forward would increase density, with a large scale development approach involving multi-unit buildings, as opposed to single family homes.

At the same time, I often hear from residents of Saint Paul who feel that their streets are not well maintained, or plowed properly in the winter. They complain about lack of funds for parks and the development of new bike trails. This got me thinking, that everyone needs a quick little primer about how life works in a city. At least a simplified methodology that can be the beginning of deeper discussions.

There are three things that people often ask for in their neighborhoods.

  1. Low density
  2. Low taxes
  3. Nice things (well maintained streets, infrastructure, good police/fire, and great parks)

This is a simplified list, but in general this is what people complain about. Here’s the problem though.

You can only have two out of the three. 

These three things are not mutually exclusive, but they are exclusive when you combine them into a triad. At a high level you can’t have all three things at the same time, and you need to chose between which two things you want to focus your energy on.

  • If you want low density and low taxes, there isn’t enough money to have nice things and infrastructure will suffer.
  • If you want low taxes and nice things, then you need high density to create a large enough tax base to pay for it all.
  • If you want low density and nice things then you need high taxes to pay for everything with a smaller tax base.

There are nuances in all of this, but you need to pick what is most important to you, and it will dictate your other choices.

Some may argue that you can go for a moderate approach. Perhaps you can have medium density, with moderate taxes, and simply adequate things. The difficulty with this approach is that we all have an idea in our head of what low and high density looks like. Most people would agree that a suburb like Coon Rapids, MN is a lower density environment, and NE Minneapolis is a higher one. However, what constitutes “in between” is a large swath of ideas that are difficult to agree on, and relates not just to the number of houses, but to the numbers of roads and transit options.

The same goes for taxes and nice things. We know what the ends of the spectrum look like, but coming to agreement on where the middle is can be quite difficult. The issue of property taxes can be affected by not just the reality of people’s ability to pay, but by their underlying political philosophies.

Compromise solutions can also be a challenge for cities to administer, but it’s a situation that many places find themselves in because of their desire to bring everyone together. It creates a scenario where cities have to live on the razor edge of a knife with their budget and planning, worrying about what happens if they make any slight movement to one side. For example, a low density suburb, with low taxes, might decide that it wants to start investing in more bike paths because of resident demands. Due to the incredibly spread-out nature of the suburb, these amenities can be expensive to build and to maintain. Yet, they build them with one time money, and often can’t afford to keep them maintained over the long haul. It creates a scenario where no one wins.

I don’t envy cities that have to deal with choices around these topics. But, perhaps, if we all start with a better foundation of knowledge about what our choices are, we can have a better conversation right from the start. Understanding what the levers are, and how we all feel about each of them, can guide better discussions among residents. Making people aware of how all the facets of our cities need to work together creates a better informed electorate, and a healthier dialogue among elected and non-elected officials.

Gentle snow over downtown

After a few days of really heavy posts, I’m going to keep it light today. I had a meeting on a higher level floor in downtown Saint Paul, and it happened to be gently snowing. Instead of a picture I decided to take a nice little video of the snow falling over the new Treasure Island Center (formerly Macys). A gentle reminder today about how even a bustling downtown can be beautiful in the right conditions.

Truck Park on West 7th

A while ago the wife and I stopped by the Truck Park venue in Saint Paul and got to sample one of their homemade, and gigantic, ice cream sandwiches. This past weekend we had another opportunity to visit for a large gathering of friends. We arrived a bit early so we could get some real food, and I opted for their street tacos.

IMG_1884.jpgThese were packed to overflowing with nice and spicy chicken, and I purchased a side of creamy guac that really went well with the heat. I also decided to get an Old Style brand beer, since I figured that corn-shell tacos deserved a nice corn derived beer. Needless to say, not the best beer I’ve ever had.

Once all of our friends arrived the party started, and the restaurant brought out 4 of their giant 15 lb. ice cream sandwiches. These are made with ice cream from Sebastian Joe’s and cookies from T-Rex Cookie. The cookies that made up the top and bottom are the size of pizzas. They filled them with all different flavors of ice cream which meant that you had no idea what type of ice cream would be in your slice. It was a lot of fun.

IMG_1886.jpgI managed to eat about 80% of my piece, however I lost willpower with the bottom cookie. The cookies are so thick that it’s really hard to get through them. I feel like I could have just gone with a single cookie on the bottom, since I had to spoon out the ice cream anyway. Despite this, it was incredibly delicious. An awesome way to round out the day.


All these B&W photos going around

There’s a challenge on FB right now to post B&W photos for 7 days with no context. I don’t think I’m going to join in with it, but I did snap a pic the other day that I feel works well in B&W. This is from Mears Park in downtown Saint Paul, near lowertown. It’s a small path off to the side, that is used a lot by dog walkers from the nearby apartments. On this day it was actually snowing beautiful big snowflakes, but they don’t really show very well in the final product. It’s shots like this that remind me of the beauty around us, even on a walk into work through a downtown.