DECISION 2021: Meet the Council Candidates for the Bronx District 11

Candidates for Tuesday's District 11 special election include (from left) Eric Dinowitz, Jessica Haller and Mino Lora.
Candidates for Tuesday's District 11 special election include (from left) Eric Dinowitz, Jessica Haller and Mino Lora.

The vast majority of council members are term-limited and cannot run for re-election this year. But there are a number of special elections before the June 22, 2021 main event — and one of those is in District 11, which includes the Bronx neighborhoods of Bedford Park, Kingsbridge, Norwood, Riverdale, Van Cortlandt Village, Wakefield, and Woodlawn (a seat previously represented by Andrew Cohen before he won a seat as a judge). The special election is on Tuesday, March 23, though early voting is underway. Streetsblog spoke with three of the six candidates vying to replace Cohen — all of whom have qualified for matching public funds, according to the Campaign Finance Board. A fourth candidate who has received matching funds, Dan Padernacht, did not respond.

District 11
District 11

District 11 has ample green space in the form of the sprawling Van Cortlandt Park, which is nice. On the other hand, it lacks any truly reliable way to move across the Bronx, as the subway and Metro-North stations in the district are designed to bring riders to Manhattan.

Like much of the Bronx, the Department of Transportation has not added much to the district in the form of protected bike infrastructure either, leaving cars to take the vast majority of the street space in the area. Since January, 2019, there have been 5,472 crashes injuring 89 cyclists, 303 pedestrians (killing three), and injuring 1,425 motorists (killing five), according to Crash Mapper.

Jessica Haller

  • Tech entrepreneur and climate activist
  • Raised $225,527, spent $180,913

Haller, whose family was displaced years ago by the Cross Bronx Expressway, has a litany of policy ideas and proposals on her website, which no doubt helped her win the coveted StreetsPAC endorsement. No matter what she’s trying to fix though, she says transportation runs through every issue like a caramel ribbon.

“Transportation is at the heart of all this for me,” she said. “My platform is equity, resilience, and sustainability, and transportation is the center of all three of those.”

Haller said that most of the neighborhoods in her district have more people living half a mile away from a subway or a quarter mile away from a bus stop than any other neighborhoods in the city, which gives her a large transit desert to deal with. Instead of shrugging her shoulders and saying the northwest Bronx will just need to rely on cars forever, Haller instead said she wanted different solutions to wean people off the private car, since she said a one-to-one swap for electric cars is just a different way to lose the streets.

“We need to gently and gracefully swap out cars for better transit and the only way we’re going to make those transitions gracefully is if people feel like there’s an increase in convenience in public transit and ways for them to get around,” she said. “Why can’t we have other options that we can introduce in the city to move people? For example at, 231st and Broadway, you get off the 1 train and there’s tremendous backlog of people waiting for a bus to go up Riverdale Avenue, which is a huge hill so like walking is even hard. Why can’t we have, say, a mini-shuttle run by the DOT call it a jitney. Just a way to get between two points in the neighborhood.”

In a borough where east-west public transportation options are the bus, Haller also is ready to embrace a bike as a way to get across town. Haller pitches bike infrastructure as a cost-effective way to increase lifespans in the city, with a stat on her website stating that $1,300 in bike lanes gives benefits equivalent to an additional year of life expectancy. Of course, protected bike lanes are the best way to keep cyclists alive, and Haller said she’s ready to rumble to get some of those.

The city added a bike lane on Broadway bordering Van Cortlandt Park in 2018, but hasn’t brought any protected bike lanes to the district since then. Although she said there has to be some attempt to “strike a middle ground” when putting in bike lanes, she would be a Council member who won’t let a community board determine the fate of every street improvement the city brings to it.

“Protected bike lanes are what we need. There’s science to traffic, there’s art to traffic. It can’t be, ‘There 50 people on this meeting, let’s vote and then the DOT will do that.’ That’s not how it’s going to work,” she said.

Eric Dinowitz

  • Special education teacher
  • $218,890, spent $176,059

Dinowitz, a former teacher, said he’s all-in on a pet issue of Streetblog and antsy schoolkids everywhere: having class outside.

“As a former teacher, one of the things we were advocating for was was the option to teach outside,” he said. “I think [open streets] could be a vital components of outdoor learning.”

The lifelong Bronxite also touted his time spent fighting the MTA for elevators in District 11, an experience which among other frustrations has him advocating for a city-run MTA.

“A few years ago, I formed a coalition of elected leaders, community leaders, business leaders, to debate accessibility at the 4 train at Mosholu Parkway. We collected over 2,000 signatures, I went to multiple MTA meetings, to advocate for this need. And a year later, they put that station in the capital plan. It was a significant amount of work, a significant amount of community effort over accessibility at one station alone.”

Dinowitz said that District 11’s bus service is unreliable and that, as a cyclist, he finds the district’s cycling infrastucture to be lacking, but he seemed more driven by ensuring that drivers didn’t have to share street space with bus or bike riders. Dinowitz said the DOT’s proposed bus lane on Broadway would have hurt small businesses because it would reduce parking on the block, but that he liked the Broadway bike lane because it didn’t remove any motor vehicle lanes.

“In the Bronx, we don’t have streets like Columbus Avenue where it’s it’s five lanes of traffic and you put in a bike lane and it doesn’t really affect one’s ability to drive,” he said. “Fewer lanes does not mean fewer cars [point of information: experts on the phenomenon of induced demand would disagree]. More options means people have the choice and the ability to get out of the car.”

Dinowitz, who serves on Community Board 8, declined to mention any efforts he led to improve options like cycling or bus service, and said he wanted to leave it up to community input to determine how something like a comprehensive bike network would be built in the district. It’s not entirely out of step with how candidates for office have talked about planning for a comprehensive bike lane network, but even as he suggested improvements like bike parking at Metro-North stations to encourage people to bike there, the philosophy at the core of Dinowitz’s answer ultimately keeps cars at the top of the transportation pyramid.

“I want to hear from the community members working together where they’d like to see bike lanes and what makes sense for the community,” he said. “And of course nobody is going to automatically agree with everyone else, but that’s why you have difficult conversations. And I don’t believe that bike lanes necessarily mean that you have to get rid of parking, and that you have to get rid of driving lanes.”

Mino Lora

  • Executive Director, People’s Theater Project
  • Raised $174,319, spent $62,556

For Lora, the transportation situation in District 11 has her asking why they can’t have it as nice as the people in Manhattan.

“Right now many residents feel they need to have a car to be able to go to the places that they need to get to for work and otherwise,” she said. “So we have to make sure that we’re expanding bus service, making sure that we have dedicated bus lanes. Manhattan has it, we see it on 14th Street. Shouldn’t we have that here in the district, so moving east and west can be more efficient?”

Lora said she supported expanding protected bike lanes around the district, and suggested that the expansion had to come through an equity lens.

“We need to look at it holistically and say how are we making sure that we are making these get to the communities who need it the most or are farthest away from public transportation? Are there bike parking spots in schools, are we doing classes to learn how to ride a bike for city kids? So we need to make sure that as we’re looking at expanding bike lanes, we’re also increasing bike usage, which comes with education and comes with investments in bikes.”

The investments also included a novel way to win over bike lane opponents if and when the planning process engenders opposition.

“We have to absolutely educate our community as to the why we’re doing a bike lane, what it gives us as a community, what a little gift to us as, as residents and as businesses, because we believe, we need to listen to all of the perspectives. But then also, if we’re saying we’re doing a bike lane, and that’s it and losing spots, I see how the community is not going to get behind that. But if the conversation is we’re doing bike lanes, and bringing in bikes that you can rent that will be right here on the sidewalk, and as residents of Wakefield you get priority to use them, then the conversation is different.”

Whether that system of shared bikes is Citi Bike or not didn’t seem to make a huge difference to Lora, who said she found the bike share too expensive for her tastes.

Lora was also a booster of the city’s open streets program and said she wanted to find way to expand it.

“Open streets for me is about making sure that there are more open spaces and streets that we take over. There may be some that we can identify as communities that can even become full time ones. There are some in Kingsbridge that are not very traffic heavy, maybe we turn them into plazas. It’s about taking back our street, because our streets belong to the people, to Bronxites, and not to cars.”