CANDIDATE Q&A: Karen Oliver

Karen Oliver Campaign Headshot_cropBy Falls Church Times Staff
October 23, 2013

The Falls Church Times recently invited each candidate running in the November 5 election for Falls Church City Council to respond to an eight-part questionnaire.  Today we publish the responses of Karen Oliver.


Oliver works with DC consulting firm Orr Associates providing non-profit organizations guidance in financial management and regulatory compliance.  She serves on the board of directors of the Winter Hill Community Association, and her children attend Falls Church City Public Schools. Previously, she served on the boards of American schools in Islamabad, Pakistan and New Delhi, India.  Additional information about Oliver is available at her campaign website,


1. Qualifications. Why are you running for City Council?  What strengths and experience would you bring to the job?

I’m running because we need council members who are (1) experienced at working collaboratively on a team, and (2) smart about finances and budgets.

My teamwork and finance skills come from six years on school boards and decades in business, finding the common ground among diverse, competing groups in a way that lets a community make decisions on hard issues. With this experience, I can be both a strong advocate of our terrific school system and smart in getting the absolute maximum from our budget dollars.

I’m energized to bring this experience to City Council by my recent work with the city and the Winter Hill neighborhood on the big Harris Teeter development project, which our residents have been working to improve over the past year. I’ve been pleased to find the city fairly responsive — but as development intensifies in our city, “responsive” will not be good enough. Our city needs to initiate communications with everyone who has a stake in each project that comes along early enough in the process that we can make effective decisions in a timely fashion.

2. City Finances. Financial pressures facing the City include rapidly growing schools, aging facilities, increased demand on city services, pensions liabilities, and the need for an appropriate fund balance.  Although budgeting always requires “balance,” Council members must establish priorities.  What will be your priorities as you face these pressures?

Specific choices on spending can come only when we combine our vision for the community with spreadsheets and real data in front of us. That said, some of our general needs are clear:

  • KEEPING OUR SCHOOLS STRONG. We all know that our terrific schools are a big part of our strong property values and quality of life in Falls Church. I’ll use my school board experience and budget skills to keep our schools strong at the least possible cost.
  • BEGINNING NOW TO RE-WORK OUR OUTDATED INFRASTRUCTURE. Have you seen the photos of our crumbling storm drain pipes?  It’s not a flashy issue, but a high priority must be to accelerate our planning for a broad re-working of storm water runoff management. Similarly, we need to work cooperatively with our neighbors, Arlington and Falls Church, on managing the ever increasing traffic on Broad Street and Washington Boulevard. As we consider the appropriate size of our reserve funds, these infrastructure needs must be part of that math.
  • ENCOURAGING DELIBERATE, SMART DEVELOPMENT. This is not so much a spending issue as a top priority for building the tax revenues that will make all of our community needs easier to fulfill!  If we encourage development that fits within our vision of the Little City that has a positive economic impact we all win.

With a vision, a rolling planning process and a focus on a range of financing options we can balance our budget without unduly burdening any part of our community.

3. School facilities. Ideas have been floated by a number of people on how to pay for new facilities at George Mason High School and Mt. Daniel Elementary.  Some of those ideas include commercial development in the area near GMHS to bring in more revenue, tearing down City Hall to build a new GMHS there, and selling the Mt. Daniel property and moving those students to Thomas Jefferson Elementary.  Do you favor any of these proposals?   What would you propose as a way to deal with school facility needs?

Here, too, a truly responsible answer to any of these proposals must come with real data and plans. But some basic facts that can guide us in smart, creative thinking:

  • OPENNESS TO MOVING CITY HALL. In our city’s two square miles, the current City Hall site, adjacent to Cherry Hill Park, is a prime location for facilities that serve the entire community. If an efficient city office center could be built elsewhere, perhaps as part of a mixed-use site with good transport links, why not consider a new use for the current City Hall land?  What combination of facilities — community center, library, school, farm-market or other event space — would work along with Cherry Hill Park to create a gem of public space for all of Falls Church?
  • OPENNESS TO COMMERCIAL DEVELOPMENT AT WEST FALLS CHURCH. We would be short on vision to acquire the land beside the West Falls Church Metro station and then not make use of its natural capacity to sustain the economic needs of our city. As our entire region becomes more urban, the best long-term use of this land might involve either moving the high school or rebuilding it in as a denser facility that frees up space for nearby commercial development that can provide a positive contribution to the city’s coffers.

4. Real Estate Development. Falls Church City is looking at a number of approved and prospective real estate developments in the coming years, such as the “Harris Teeter project” on West Broad, the “Reserve at Tinner Hill” on South Maple, a possible mixed-use project at Broad and West, and the potential development of land linked to the sale of the City water system.  In your view, what community values should new real estate developments reflect, and what specific features and characteristics should be included to make them enjoyable and valuable for the community?

I have been working directly on this issue as one of the concerned citizens within the Winter Hill neighborhood who sought to improve the proposed “Harris Teeter project,” rather than shout “not in my backyard.”Here are some essential values we should pursue to build a people-friendly downtown:

  • CONSULT ALL PARTICIPANTS FROM DAY ONE. The neighbors of the Harris Teeter complex got an early voice in the project, but only because they seized the initiative. The city must be active, not passive, in holding the dialogues with neighborhoods, the business community and other stakeholders in each project.
  • MAIN-STREET DESIGNS. Let’s avoid concrete-and-glass towers, and encourage development that belongs in a small town, not at Tyson’s Corner!
  • LEAN AWAY FROM CARS. Especially as young Americans shift away from owning private cars, our designs should not thoughtlessly increase our city’s reliance on autos. They should invite people to use them by walking, cycling, car-sharing or public transport, as well as by driving. New projects should be required to provide enough parking, but this should be encouraged to move underground or otherwise out of view.
  • VARY THE RETAIL. Retail spaces should be sized to invite the smaller businesses that will help us keep and build the attractive character of our downtown — something that big chain stores don’t always do!
  • APPEAL TO YOUNGER AND OLDER RESIDENTS. The people-friendly downtown will help draw in key demographics of residents — young, early-career adults and older, empty-nesters — who are especially attractive to business, and whose households put less of a burden on our schools.

5. Economic Development.  Separate from real estate development, what can the City do to generate increased economic activity?  What kinds of businesses and activities should we recruit and promote?  What tools should we utilize?

Falls Church is a gem of a city, with a desirable demographic for many businesses. Why is it that parents are pounding on our doors to find a home here so that their children can benefit from our schools, but we don’t see the same active interest by businesses?

I hope that the City can find a way to exploit our unique character by better publicizing the benefits of operating a business here in Falls Church. If we identify the types of organizations that can complement our current business base and fit with our vision we can target our marketing to the types of organizations that will benefit us all.

6. Storm water.  The City Council recently passed a plan to enhance the city’s storm water infrastructure.  It features a new user fee that would be paid beginning next year by homeowners, businesses, and churches.  Executing the plan would require a number of new full-time employees.  Do you agree with this approach?  If not, how would you modify it?

Check out the city’s photos of our crumbling underground storm-water pipes, and you’ll agree that we need urgently to update the system!  Or, you could ask the folks on Sherrow Avenue, as just one example, who have waded through the ponds left by the derecho and other recent storms!  As our population density grows, our work to preserve lands and water grows more complex — and user fees are a fair part of sharing that cost within our community.

Also, starting next July 1, all Virginia localities will have the responsibility to implement new state regulations on storm water runoff, and I would not assume that we can fulfill these environmentally important tasks without hiring some additional staff, at least during an initial period while we’re installing new systems. Whether we must do so or for how long, are detail questions that can be answered only with data and the evaluations of our city managerial staff.

7. “Ped” Plan.  In 2012, the City announced that the Council “withdrew consideration of the Pedestrian, Bicycle and Traffic Calming Strategic Implementation Plan to allow for changes to the plan and additional time for public input, review and approval.”  To date, the Council has not resumed consideration of the plan.  Do you feel the City should pursue such a plan?  If yes, what changes, if any, should be made to the 2012 version of the plan?  If not, why not?

The “Ped Plan” released last year obviously troubled some neighborhoods over a loss of parking spaces, and with what some folks felt was a regimented approach to implementing it. Fair enough. But if we need to rework parts of the plan to be fairer in its details, that should not delay implementing the many parts of it that had broad public support. Our community generally supports the broader vision of keeping our community on a human scale, with safe access for pedestrians and bicyclists. City Council needs to lead in gathering concerned neighbors to begin re-working the disputed parts of the plan that created sharp contention. And should move ahead with steps that we can implement with little cost — such as simple painted bike lanes throughout the town to connect and build upon the bike trails we already have.

8. Current Council. What has the current Council done well and what has it done poorly?

The current Council is a really talented, hardworking group, and no one can doubt their commitment to improving our city!   In the past couple of years they have advanced the interests of the city by reaching a reasonable agreement on the sale (subject to referendum) of the water system and in making progress on key economic development efforts that have lead to the “Harris Teeter project” on West Broad and the “Reserve at Tinner Hill” on South Maple that are under development.

At the same time, the current Council has sometimes had trouble collaborating constructively on tough issues. Teamwork can be improved, and that would be one of my goals. Also, we’ve had some communication problems such as the Council’s perceived adversarial approach to the last school board budget. I would like to improve on this, and on the Council’s communications, such as on development project, with the wider community.

This is the third of five candidate questionnaire responses published by the Falls Church Times, and we would like to thank Mrs. Oliver for her participation.  We encourage all registered voters to go to the polls on Tuesday November 5.  Information on polling place hours and locations is available at  

October 23, 2013 


3 Responses to “CANDIDATE Q&A: Karen Oliver”

  1. Gary LaPorta on October 23rd, 2013 8:38 am

    I salute you for taking on the challenge of elected office. I ask that, if elected, you fairly and equally represent ALL the citizens of The City of Falls Church.

  2. Karen Oliver, Falls Church on October 23rd, 2013 1:49 pm


    I salute you for all you have done for our little city over the years as an active and concerned citizen, and in your leadership roles with the Chamber of Commerce.

    I do commit to serving all the citizens of our community fairly and equally.

    I look forward to continuing conversations about how to make Falls Church a comfortable place for all of us.


  3. dale walton on October 23rd, 2013 7:51 pm

    Ms. Oliver – – specifically where do you think the City budget can be cut (particularly the school portion),…so that the City can remain affordable to those who are getting older, are on fixed incomes, no longer have children in the school system and would like to remain in the City…but find themselves being taxed to the point of leaving?

    Would you be a councilperson who will look closely at school expenditures and push back against the school lobby in the interest of balance and all City residents?

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