In NoHo, a Neighborhood Watchdog Forges a Team of Power Brokers

Screen shot 2012-03-23 at 5.13.50 PMRay Lemoine

She’s been called “NYC’s biggest killjoy,” and now she’s looming larger than ever. Last Tuesday at Community Board 2’s S.L.A. Licensing meeting, longtime activist Zella Jones publicly unveiled the NoHo-Bowery Stakeholders, a group of heavy-hitters that will act as a united front in helping to determine the course of the historic neighborhood – with Ms. Jones as President and Chief Operating Officer.

Two years in the works and modeled after similar organizations in Baltimore and San Francisco, the non-profit 501(4)c consists of 250 paying members, including residents of NoHo, local real estate and business owners, and non-profits such as the Merchant’s House Museum and La MaMa.

At Community Board 2 meetings, where Ms. Jones and her loose coalition of concerned neighbors were once the neighborhood’s scrappy watchdogs, they’ll now be part of what Ms. Jones likens to “A Team of Rivals,” Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book about President Lincoln’s cabinet.

“We have some really powerful people – some of whom traditionally have squared off against each other for a variety of reasons, from out-of-scale development to landmarking to nightlife proliferation – all involved for the benefit of NoHo,” she said, adding that the group’s members range from “purist” property owners who began their NoHo careers in artist-in-residence lofts to the more recent arrivals living in the sleek new properties on Bond Street.

astorRay Lemoine

At the inaugural meeting of the group, held last fall at B-Bar before a panorama of NoHo, the owners of The Smile (a cafe that was once in Ms. Jones’s crosshairs) sat next to Peter Hoffman, a Great Jones Street resident who runs the two Back 40 restaurants. Next to him sat paint-splattered Jorge Ulrich, formerly the director of the public art wall at Houston and Bowery and currently director of The Hole gallery. There were art dealers, bankers, poets, and hoteliers.

The pied piper of this group moved to NoHo in 1975, into a loft just vacated by hyperrealist artist Duane Hanson. “I was a farm girl,” said Ms. Jones, who grew up in rural New Hampshire and is now in her 60s.  “I built everything. The loft didn’t have anything.”

At the time, relatively few people actually lived in the neighborhood’s abandoned manufacturing buildings. She was robbed within a week of moving in, and not for the last time. “In the first five years I was robbed five more times and mugged twice,” she said with a sardonic laugh. “And that was before the crack war.”

Ms. Jones, who now owns a marketing and communications company, lost her job as a waitress when she tried to unionize her coworkers. Her efforts in NoHo, starting in the late 70s, have been more successful. Due in part to her tireless presence at Community Board meetings, the neighborhood is a picturesque square mile consisting of 125 landmarked buildings that were described by Don DeLillo, in his 1973 novel “Great Jones Street,” as “half as tall as they should have been, as if deprived by light by the great skyscraper ranges to the north and south.”

The NoHo-Bowery Stakeholders’ board includes the owner of one of those skyscrapers, Andre Balazs, as well as fellow hoteliers Ian Schrager and Eric Goode. All are competitors. And all have projects financed by Richard Born, a lower-key but higher-stakes player who is also the NoHo-Bowery Stakeholders board chairman. Dr. Born, a former surgeon, backs more than hotels. He offered funds for Ms. Jones’ idea from the jump, and even found the time to attend meetings.

Andy Fisher, the owner of Astor Wine and Spirits and the Devine Press Building that houses it, said that he joined the group because of Ms. Jones. His father was once president of the NoHo NY BID. “The narrowness of a BID is that it only represents real estate owners. It didn’t have room for non-profits,” he said. “This is a new paradigm. Anyone can join, and then we can present a monolithic force to the Community Board, City and State. And Zella is the glue.”

Mr. Fisher said he lost faith in the BID when he offered to install street lamps on Lafayette Street on his own dime. “I show up to the Community Board meeting and some guy says he’s representing the NoHo BID, which my father founded, and opposed me – opposed street lamps. Why would anyone oppose that? Never mind by claiming to represent a group my family helped found. It was time for something new.”

In Baltimore, a similar group, the Midtown Community Benefits District, has been responsible for installing street lamps, ensuring access to public transportation, maintaining parkland and guiding general growth. In San Francisco, the model covers virtually every downtown neighborhood, operating as a public-private partnership where city funds are managed by the C.B.D.

Unlike the Baltimore group, the NoHo-Bowery Stakeholders consists of volunteers and does not require all neighborhood property owners to buy in via property taxes. And unlike the San Francisco groups, NoHo-Bowery Stakeholders is private (one resident was asked to pay $250) and does not take city funds.

That’s one of the reasons Ms. Jones says her organization is unique. “The Bleecker Area Merchants’ and Residents’ Association might claim similarity,” she said, “though they are not as inclusive and don’t really act as one organization.”

Despite her growing stature, Ms. Jones still has her adversaries. The operator of a well regarded restaurant in the neighborhood, who did not want to be named, said Ms. Jones forced her to create a higher-quality establishment, but at a cost in the hundreds of thousands and with a restricted liquor license that cost hundreds of thousands more in lost revenue.

“We ask operators what they want to do, then see if we can trust them to execute,” Ms. Jones rebutted. “If you can run until 4 a.m. responsibly, we’d love to have you in NoHo.” She added that the group was less about liquor license squabbles and more about creating a community: “NoHo-Bowery Stakeholders is the combination of many interests that have united to preserve and protect the neighborhood’s character and to participate in its next phase of history.”