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 boards district manager on Aug. 14. Until Aug. 11, hell continue working at the Department of Consumer Affairs, where he is the point person on sidewalk cafe permits.
On Board 2, hell 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 Gormleys down-to-earth, no-nonsense personality, whereas some other board members were taken with Koesters 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 didnt want to give up her job security and union benefits by moving into the managerial position. Shes being promoted to community coordinator.
C.B. 2 covering Greenwich Village, Soho, Noho, Little Italy and Hudson Square is one of Manhattans 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 boards 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 Gormleys 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. Hes always been interested in issues, and in Westways 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 mans 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 Councils Investigations Division.
Anything under any city agency was fair game, he said of the units 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 dont 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 citys largest sewage treatment plant, in Greenpoint again. The committees members were appointed by the local community board, Brooklyn borough president and local city councilmembers. Gormley was the committees 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. Hes 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 its damn impressive, he said though, on second thought, admitting not all might be equally interested in gigantic sludge digesters.
He then returned to the Councils 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.
Hes frequently had to talk to office staff from the two Manhattan boards with the most sidewalk cafes, Greenwich Villages C.B. 2 and the Upper East Sides C.B. 8. The number of sidewalk cafes in C.B. 3, covering the East Village and Lower East Side, is growing, but its not nearly as much [as C.B. 2 and 8], he noted.
Hes 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: Youre killing us! Youre killing us! Our fees have increased three times! he recalled of restaurateurs complaints.
As thoroughly enmeshed as hes been in issues about sidewalk cafes, Gormleys aware of how contentious they can be.
Obviously, theyre popular, he said. But they can also be a nuisance if the restaurant doesnt operate well. Theres something called cafe creep, where a sidewalk cafes assigned a certain footprint, and you go there late at night and see that its beyond that.
Hes familiar, for example, with the ins and outs of Epsteins Bars 2005 sidewalk cafe application that C.B. 3 rejected, but which Councilmember Alan Gerson didnt 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 thats an area thats 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 hell just be himself.
Im not going to be Arty Strickler, he said. Ive got big shoes to fill
. As far as Arty and his extreme, extroverted personality, I have my moments. Someone said theres a parade Arty used to march in, and I said Id be willing to do it.
He said hes glad theres a structure in place with Arenas and the boards two other employees, Julio Mora and Gloria Harris.
Strickler used to love the cameras. But Gormley says one thing he doesnt do well is pose for photos.
I dont think Im going to run to the camera, he said. But if someone wants me to take picture with the mayor, whos 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 isnt about politics for him. Hes 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.