Icehouse Café loses bid to stay at city-owned Hammond’s Cove Marina, owners and community outraged at decision

Ice House Cafe
Icehouse Café owners Terry and Justin Dambinskas allege the city and NYC Parks of acting in “bad faith” during an RFP process that awarded the property to Busters Bronx Marine Service.
Photo ET Rodriguez

A 20-year fixture in the peninsular neighborhood of Locust Point, Icehouse Café will officially close shop on April 1 making way for a new Hammond’s Cove Marina concessionaire. But the longtime owners are not going quietly as they weigh whether to pursue legal action against the city, which owns the property.

Hammond’s Cove, which sits near the Throgs Neck Bridge, is the only NYC Parks-owned marina in the Bronx. And Icehouse Café owners Terry and Justin Dambinskas allege the city and NYC Parks of acting in “bad faith” during the request for proposals (RFP) bidding process, while also claiming the city hasn’t given them proper time to move out.

Earlier this month, the city awarded a new vendor contract to Busters Bronx Marina Service, which plans to open a new on-site restaurant and programming this summer as part of a $5 million investment into the waterfront property.

The change in vendors shines a light on a unique wrinkle for concessionaires who operate on NYC parkland and marinas. In lieu of lease agreements, vendors sign long-term license agreements, which upon expiration, open the space up to a wide-open RFP bidding process, which is required by city law.

Terry Dambinskas told the Bronx Times that the past month has been “heartbreaking” as she’s been sifting through 20 years of boating equipment and memories, as she prepares to close the doors for good.

Natasha Dambinskas, daughter of Terry Dambinskas, helps lead a rally at the Icehouse Café on Sunday, March 26, 2023. Many of the signs at the rally included slogans like “Bronx Strong” and referenced that the restaurant is a woman-owned business. Photo Max Blease

“For 20 years, we thought we had a good relationship with the city. We closed during the pandemic and made sure our employees were paid. We endured hardships, but we wanted to continue being here for 20 more years because we love this community and the Bronx,” said Justin Dambinskas. “To me, for it to end like this, it’s horses–t.”

The couple signed a 15-year license to operate their café in Hammond’s Cove in 2003, an agreement that included a four-year renewal option. Ahead of the expiration of that four-year extension, NYC Parks opened up the property to bids from prospective concessionaires, including Icehouse Café, for the 140 Reynolds Ave. waterfront property — from Sept. 7 through Oct. 17, 2022.

During the bidding process, the Icehouse owners were given a second chance to improve their proposal to the city, a NYC Parks official told the Bronx Times.

Busters, whose proposal included capital improvements and a total estimated investment of $5 million, ultimately won out and Busters owner David Schmitt was awarded a 20-year contract from the city. Schmitt told the Bronx Times that construction for Busters’ build out won’t take place until next winter, in an effort to not interfere with this upcoming boating season.

Busters, which is named after David’s father, has an open invitation to any staff of the Icehouse Cafe interested in working at the new on-site restaurant. Schmitt said his goal for the marina is to make it “more efficient, environmentally sound and user-friendly.”

Busters’ infrastructure includes about $3.4 million in planned capital investments to the marina, including efforts to install and renovate the dock, a restaurant, parking lot and restrooms. Busters will also add another $1.6 million-plus in personal investments for a temporary Quonset hut structure and a travel lift.

In December, a long-awaited dredging was done to restore Hammond’s Cove Marina’s depths for safe navigation, operations and to enhance the recreational and emergency public access to the city’s coastal waters. Photo ET Rodriguez

NYC Parks said they informed the Icehouse owners over the phone on March 7 that they were not the successful bidder, and will give them 60 days after their April 1 license expiry to remove any remaining personal equipment.

“We thank the former operators and look forward to partnering with Busters as they begin their term and bring a significant $5 million investment and new programming to Locust Point Marina, the onsite restaurant, and the Bronx at large,” said Dan Kastanis, a NYC Parks spokesperson.

Busters is also committing to community programming including kayak rentals, a customer appreciation pop-up event, food and clothing drives as well as catering for local events. Schmitt’s goal is to provide a high-quality experience — to the tune of a $5 million investment — while keep service and concession costs low for boaters and community members.

“I’ve been in both the boating and restaurant business for roughly 20 years, so in addition to bringing that to the Bronx, I also am bringing my experience as a marine mechanic, who wants to apply that knowledge as well,” Schmitt told the Times on Tuesday. “This isn’t just an owner with a big checkbook coming in … I want this marina to be something the community can rally around, and I’m excited to showcase that.”

Despite the promise of what Busters commits to bring to the marina, the insular Locust Point community is not happy with the loss of a longtime staple. Some on Icehouse’s social media pages are talking about boycotting Busters, while others — including Community Board 10 members — are dismayed that the city did not give the community a chance to provide input.

A rally that included some local elected officials was held at the Icehouse Café on Sunday, March 26 in support of the business.

Spurned by the decision, Terry Dambinskas said she may consider legal action against the city.

NYC Parks will hold a virtual public meeting regarding the Busters contract on April 10 at 2:30 p.m.

“I love Icehouse. They’re like my family,” said Malcolm Jones, a local who boats and is a longtime supporter of the restaurant. “A lot of time they’ll do things in here for the people outside the marina, because it’s about the community. They’re worried about their neighbors or people across the street, so it sucks that this is happening to them.”

Icehouse owners said that not only have they built a community over the past 20 years, but they also rallied to get much-needed improvements to Hammond’s Cove after superstorms in the 2010s and deteriorating infrastructure at a site that’s been around since the 1930s.

In December, a long-awaited dredging projected was completed to restore the marina’s depths for safe navigation, operations and to enhance the recreational and emergency public access to the city’s coastal waters.

From left, City Councilmember Marjorie Velázquez (left), Icehouse Café owner Terry Dambinskas, and state Senator Nathalia Fernandez speak in support of retaining local ownership of the restaurant on Sunday, March 26, 2023. Photo Max Blease

Throggs Neck Councilmember Marjorie Velázquez said she’s still waiting to hear an official explanation from NYC Parks on why they chose Busters.

“I worked closely with the owner of the Icehouse throughout the dredging process and was disappointed to hear she did not receive the contract,” said Velázquez. “The RFP process went through NYC Parks, who chose a different operator that I have yet to meet or hear from. To hear that a local, women-owned business whose owner also lives in the district lost a contract … without reason is truly upsetting, and I look forward to finding out what led to this determination.”

NYC Parks reports an annual concession revenue of $119,509, with the prime time earnings coming during boating season, which runs from May 1 to Nov. 1.

Busters has been a family-owned marine commercial business in the state for decades, and recently filed for a Bronx LLC in January 2023.

NYC Parks said that background checks and searches by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration and New York State Department of State into Schmitt during the RFP process found “no open issues.”

This article was updated on March 28 at 1:45 p.m. to include comments from David Schmitt, owner and operator of Busters Bronx Marina Service.

Reach Robbie Sequeira at [email protected] or (718) 260-4599. For more coverage, follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @bronxtimes.