Volume 76, Number 11 | August 2 - 8, 2006

Expert on cafes, Gormley brings a lot to the table

By Lincoln Anderson

With a straight-shooting attitude, a law degree and a probably the most knowledge about sidewalk cafe regulations of anyone in the city, Bob Gormley has a lot to offer in his new job as district manager of Community Board 2.

Gormley starts as the board’s district manager on Aug. 14. Until Aug. 11, he’ll continue working at the Department of Consumer Affairs, where he is the point person on sidewalk cafe permits.

On Board 2, he’ll be filling the position left vacant when Arty Strickler, district manager for the last 10 years, died unexpectedly in March at age 60 of a heart attack.

There were more than 70 applicants, according to Maria Passannante Derr, C.B. 2 chairperson. Fourteen were interviewed before the search was narrowed to two finalists, Gormley and Lynn Bagley Koester, who has worked as a staff member for several politicians.

The vote was close, 21 board members voting for Gormley, 18 for Koester.

“I think both candidates were highly qualified,” said Derr. “It was a very tough decision for the board. I think Bob Gormley will be an excellent district manager — he has an expertise in sidewalk cafes.”

Ed Gold, a veteran C.B. 2 member, said he liked Gormley’s down-to-earth, no-nonsense personality, whereas some other board members were taken with Koester’s gung-ho energy. But, Gold said, in his view, the board has had enough excitement in recent years and that Gormley seems to be a “solid citizen,” the type of which the board could use right now.

Florence Arenas, C.B. 2 community associate, was also a D.M. finalist, but decided she didn’t want to give up her job security and union benefits by moving into the managerial position. She’s being promoted to community coordinator.

C.B. 2 — covering Greenwich Village, Soho, Noho, Little Italy and Hudson Square — is one of Manhattan’s 12 community boards. The boards each have 50 volunteer members appointed by the borough president, half of them being recommended by the city councilmembers representing the district. The board’s top staff member, the district manager supervises the office staff and is a general ombudsman, interacting with city agencies and officials, and fielding complaints from park problems to potholes.

In Gormley’s case, the job seems a good fit for his talents and interests. Plus, Greenwich Village has held a lifelong interest for the Brooklyn native.

During a recent Sunday afternoon interview in Abingdon Square Park, Gormley, 50, said he first started visiting the Village when he was in his teens to help the campaign against Westway — a planned highway tunnel along the Hudson River with a park and residential development on top.

“I got hooked up with the anti-Westway group,” he said. He’s always been interested in issues, and in Westway’s case, “It was about how you spent capital funds…. I think I just went to meetings, made some phone calls and stuffed envelopes,” he recalled of his efforts fighting the hated megaproject, which was eventually scrapped for a new, at-grade highway and the Hudson River Park.

Gormley had an early interest in theater, which also blossomed in the Village. One day in his 20s, walking past the 13th St. Repertory Theater, he noticed a sign asking for help and inquired. He joined an apprentice theater program there that led to several years of stage managing and sound production for off-off-off Broadway. He tried his hand at playwriting too.

“I wrote a couple of plays. They were very, very bad,” he said. “As Clint Eastwood once said in one of his movies, ‘A man’s gotta recognize his limitations.’ ”

Gormley grew up in Flatbush and other parts of Brooklyn, the eldest of three children. His father was an attorney and his mother worked for the phone company. He attended St. Francis Prep in Greenpoint, then Harvard, but dropped out after one year due to family issues.

He was married in his 20s, but divorced. He worked for awhile driving a forklift at the Domino sugar factory in Greenpoint — where he currently lives.

“I love the neighborhood,” he said of Greenpoint. “I loved it before it was hip, and I still like it. At first, I was a little put off by some of the changes.”

He finished his undergraduate work at Hunter College, majoring in political science. In his mid-30s, he attended Buffalo State Law School.

With his new law degree, he got a job in the City Council’s Investigations Division.

“Anything under any city agency was fair game,” he said of the unit’s responsibilities, which ranged from checking whether park water fountains were properly functioning to doing a citywide report on elevator safety. Working in the Investigations Unit gave him experience with city agencies and contacts.

“I think it will help me in the district manager job,” he said. “Even if you don’t have an active guy [at an agency anymore] — it teaches you who to go to, how to ask questions.”

Gormley next spent two years as community liaison on the Newtown Creek Monitoring Committee, created by the City Council to track progress of the upgrading of the city’s largest sewage treatment plant, in Greenpoint again. The committee’s members were appointed by the local community board, Brooklyn borough president and local city councilmembers. Gormley was the committee’s liaison with the Department of Environmental Protection. His job was also to produce a monthly newsletter on the project.

“We put it out at bars…. We wanted to get the message out,” he recalled.

Gormley gets excited talking about the Newtown Creek project, which is still underway. He’s enthusiastic about the Percent for Art component, which led to creation of trails and beautification around the plant. The scale of the infrastructure awes him.

“They have these two gigantic, egg-shaped sludge digesters — about 125 feet tall. I think it’s damn impressive,” he said — though, on second thought, admitting not all might be equally interested in gigantic sludge digesters.

He then returned to the Council’s Investigations Unit, working for the Environmental Protection Committee, “digging up information, writing memos, [providing] information for the speaker of the Council,” as he explains it.

With Speaker Peter Vallone term-limited out of office, Gifford Miller became speaker and eliminated the Investigations Unit. Gormley landed at Consumer Affairs, where he has since been the sidewalk cafe attorney — and become intimately familiar with the details of the sidewalk cafe application process. The job has required him to have extensive interaction with restaurant owners, community associations and community boards concerning individual sidewalk cafe applications — and to draft the actual sidewalk cafe contracts.

He’s frequently had to talk to office staff from the two Manhattan boards with the most sidewalk cafes, Greenwich Village’s C.B. 2 and the Upper East Side’s C.B. 8. The number of sidewalk cafes in C.B. 3, covering the East Village and Lower East Side, “is growing, but it’s not nearly as much [as C.B. 2 and 8],” he noted.

He’s seen the amount of time for approving a sidewalk cafe permit decrease.

“It used to take 400-and-some days to get a sidewalk cafe permit,” he noted. “You had six or seven agencies and it took forever. They decided to streamline it, put it into Consumer Affairs, and that it would take no more than 110 days.”

On the other hand, the fee for sidewalk cafe permits rose.

“I got a lot of calls: ‘You’re killing us! You’re killing us! Our fees have increased three times!’ ” he recalled of restaurateurs’ complaints.

As thoroughly enmeshed as he’s been in issues about sidewalk cafes, Gormley’s aware of how contentious they can be.

“Obviously, they’re popular,” he said. “But they can also be a nuisance if the restaurant doesn’t operate well. There’s something called ‘cafe creep,’ where a sidewalk cafe’s assigned a certain footprint, and you go there late at night and see that it’s beyond that.”

He’s familiar, for example, with the ins and outs of Epstein’s Bar’s 2005 sidewalk cafe application that C.B. 3 rejected, but which Councilmember Alan Gerson didn’t call up for a hearing and which was ultimately approved. Gormley said he followed standard operating procedure on his end when he sent the speaker and Gerson copies of the application, which started the clock ticking on a 20-day period during which it could have been called up for review.

As for why he sought the district manager job, Gormley said, “I wanted to stay in government — that’s an area that’s always been attractive to me. Interacting with the community, trying to get answers from people, digging out information — those were all things I liked doing, and if I could do it in a job in a neighborhood that I enjoy it was even better.”

Gormley said he understands his salary will be a bit higher than $60,000.

As to comparisons with his predecessor, Strickler — who was colorful, and also sometimes controversial — Gormley said he’ll just be himself.

“I’m not going to be Arty Strickler,” he said. “I’ve got big shoes to fill…. As far as Arty and his extreme, extroverted personality, I have my moments. Someone said there’s a parade Arty used to march in, and I said I’d be willing to do it.”

He said he’s glad there’s a structure in place with Arenas and the board’s two other employees, Julio Mora and Gloria Harris.

Strickler used to love the cameras. But Gormley says one thing he doesn’t do well is pose for photos.

“I don’t think I’m going to run to the camera,” he said. “But if someone wants me to take picture with the mayor, who’s going to say no to having their picture taken with the mayor?”

Board 2 may be among the most political in the city. Yet, Gormley said being district manager isn’t about politics for him. He’s always liked politics — but only, he said, because it involves that word again, “issues.”

“I see the district manager as someone who can bring information to the table,” he said, “and help the board members do their job.”

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