By Karen Oliver
It was an oppressive, steamy morning on the chaotic roads of New Delhi, India. School buses full of American, Indian, East African, Korean and other students navigated through streams of motor rickshaws, honking cars, motorcycles overloaded with entire families – and bored, wandering cows. I arrived at the American Embassy School, a K-12 oasis amid the city’s tumult, lugging my files for a school board work session. But I was glad to chat first with other parents as we watched our children stream through the gates.
A few parents had received transfer orders to new posts – a regular part of life for these business execs, diplomats and international aid workers. So under the North Indian sun, I heard a British friend offer this advice to a South African couple being sent to Washington, D.C. Rather than search for some private academy for their children, the British lady said, “Find a home to rent in a town called Falls Church, in Virginia. The local schools there are fantastic!”
I was only half-surprised to hear a foreigner in India heaping praise on Falls Church City schools, because I had gone to high school just up Great Falls Street in McLean. Recalling that conversation this month has helped me answer a question that neighbors in our city have been asking me: What makes a local girl wander off to Africa and Asia, and then come home to think that she should run for Falls Church City Council?
I’ll get to Africa and Asia in a minute. What makes me run for city council is two-fold:
First, I enjoy community-building – finding the interests and goals that we share as neighbors – and connecting us all with an effective plan. I love to organize ideas, (and, yes, I confess it, even to crunch finance numbers!) so that we can make dreams real. (This is why I worked for six years shaping plans and budgets on the boards of American schools in Asia.)
My second reason for running is more accidental. We moved back from India to Falls Church in 2011, choosing the Winter Hill neighborhood for the reasons so many of us love Falls Church: so that we could walk to the library, farmers’ market, parks, shops and restaurants.
Then last year I picked up the News-Press to read that one of our city’s biggest development projects – the Harris Teeter supermarket and apartment building – was proposed for construction right outside my dining room window!
I am running for city council because I’m inspired by what happened next. Neighbors in Winter Hill organized, not to block the Harris Teeter project, but to improve it by working with a fairly responsive city and developer. It turns out that we have in Falls Church the tools to achieve careful, deliberate development (although I do have some ideas about how to make the process a little better).
Our neighborhood group has spent a lot of time in the past year on what is the defining issue for Falls Church: developing a city that attracts investment, but also a city that we all will want to live and walk in, years into the future.
We’ve had messy debates over how the Harris Teeter project will affect the environment, parking and our growing headache of traffic. Everyone wondered: How many more kids will it cram into our schools? We invited city council and planning commission members to our living rooms, where they answered questions and listened to concerns. I don’t think this project is perfect, but it’s better than it would have been without our input.
As a city council member I would work to strengthen a system of deliberate economic development that engages everyone with a stake in the community, and builds a city with livable, walkable main streets– and not the steel and glass canyons of Tysons or Ballston. I’d work to make our city government not only respond to activist citizens, but to proactively seek residents’ views from the first day of planning on a new development project!
Of course, we face other issues. (Just one example: infrastructure. As a member of the Winter Hill board, I sat in on a review this year of our city storm drains. Yikes! – the photos of the pipes show that we need desperately to pay them real attention.)
But I have no space here to detail all of our issues, or my own ideas. And, darn it, not even enough space for how I wound up in Africa and Asia in the first place. Still, I’ll be doing a lot of walking around the city this month, and I’ll hope to meet you for some real conversations! Please introduce yourself to me via [email protected], or through my website – www.karenoliverforfallschurch.wordpress.com. Let’s work on how we can build the city we want!
Karen Oliver is running for election to the Falls Church City Council in November.