Jungle Island gets approval to ask voters in August ballot: Can we build a hotel?

Miami commissioners voted unanimously Friday to put a referendum on the August ballot that would ask voters to approve a 300-room hotel on Jungle Island's Watson island property.
Miami commissioners voted unanimously Friday to put a referendum on the August ballot that would ask voters to approve a 300-room hotel on Jungle Island's Watson island property. Jungle Island

After nearly four hours of debate, City of Miami commissioners unanimously voted Friday to put a referendum on the Aug. 28 ballot asking Miami residents whether they want Jungle Island to add a hotel on its property on Watson Island.

The project came before commissioners late last month, when Jungle Island presented renderings and a proposed deal for a 130-foot hotel to be built at the site of the park's current parking garage. The commission had until Friday to decide whether that deal would go before voters in August — a time line that opponents argued was too rushed.

Opponents, made up largely of residents in the Venetian islands, argued that the park's lease and ballot language would be misleading to voters and that commissioners did not have a clear sense of the deal's ramifications. They urged commissioners to postpone putting the measure on the ballot for now.

"We are hard-pressed to know why the commission is in a rush to put this project forward," said Adam Koffler, chair of the 1000 Venetian Way Condominium Association's Jungle Island Committee. "You have no knowledge of what you or the voters are going to get in the end."

Watson Island rendering.jpeg
The proposed Jungle Island hotel would be 130 feet tall with a maximum of 300 rooms. Jungle Island

Most concerning to residents was that the ballot language does not clearly communicate that passage would allow Jungle Island to build a hotel but would also give it the option to forgo a hotel.

Opponents pointed to the development of Flagstone Island Gardens on Watson Island, that for more than a decade has been mired in financial, legal and political tangles. Voters approved the $1 billion complex with shops, a yacht marina and a hotel in 2001, but Flagstone has built only dock space, citing the economic downturn and complications from PortTunnel construction.

The conflict came to a head last year when the commission declared Flagstone in default of its agreement, which spurred lawsuits that recently ended with a judge favoring Flagstone. Now the city could be on the hook for tens of millions of dollars, though that won't be determined until a hearing later this year.

In this context, commissioners and city staffers emphasized that the proposed Jungle Island lease extension include protections. Jungle Island has four years to receive a master building permit and six additional years to finalize construction of a hotel. If it misses either of the two deadlines, the lease extension is no longer in effect and Jungle Island would fall back on its current lease, which expires in 2060. The park would also then lose its right to build a hotel.

On Friday, the park also agreed to concessions on other features that proved worrisome for nearby residents.

Originally, under the lease agreement, Jungle Island agreed to allocate $500,000 to an affordable housing fund if and when a hotel was built. But opponents argued that those terms were only meant to sweeten the deal for voters and may never come to fruition. In the new agreement, the park will instead allocate a guaranteed $100,000 if the referendum passes in August, and then an additional $35,000 annually beginning in 2021 for the duration of the lease. The total contribution to affordable housing was increased to $750,000.

Jungle rendering.jpeg
As part of the deal finalized Friday, Jungle Island increased how much it would pay the city in hotel rent once it reached a certain threshold, from $1.15 million to $1.22 million. Jungle Island

The park also increased how much it would pay the city in rent once it reached a certain threshold, from $1.15 million to $1.22 million. Under the current agreement, the hotel would be required to pay $250,000 in rent annually for three years upon opening; the rent would then increase to $1.22 million or 5 percent of total gross revenue, whichever is greater. However, the rent increase could occur sooner if the hotel's gross revenues hit $23 million before the three-year mark.

As for the park's new attractions, which include a Crystal Lagoon and zip lines, Jungle Island consented to lowering the height of its zip line towers from about 150 feet to about 50 feet. Many of the large mammals that were relocated from the park after Hurricane Irma — including lions, tigers, a liger, a leopard, a panther and a lynx — will not return to Jungle Island.

"It's not a zoo," said Commissioner Ken Russell.

The project is expected to create more than 400 jobs, with first priority going to City of Miami residents in District 5.

John Dunlap, CEO of Iconic Attractions and president of Jungle Island, said he was excited to see the ballot question move forward, adding he hopes to continue working with nearby residents to make them more comfortable with the project.

"I think we had a good dialogue. I appreciate every voice that showed up today," he said. "I hope this paves the way for continued dialogue."

What you need to know to vote

Under the deal finalized Friday, voters will decide in August:

Whether the city should extend Jungle Island's lease, which currently is set to expire in 2060. If voters approve, the lease would be extended to 2099, with an option for an additional 15-year extension.

If Jungle Island should be allowed to build a hotel. Under the proposed lease, Jungle Island would have the right, but not the obligation, to build a hotel with a maximum of 130 feet, or about 13 stories, and 300 rooms. The hotel would be privately financed. If it doesn't build the hotel within 10 years, the lease extension will be curtailed.

If the park builds a hotel, it would contribute $700,000 in maintenance repairs at the adjoining park, Ichimura Miami-Japan Garden, and donate $750,000 to an affordable housing fund.

The ballot question will read:

Shall Miami’s Charter be amended extending Jungle Island’s Lease for an additional 39-years, plus 15-year option, waiving competitive bidding, allowing at developer’s expense and option, construction of hotel and attractions with maximum 300 rooms and 130-foot height in exchange for:

Additional annual rent for the hotel of $250,000.00 increasing to $1,220,000.00 or 5.0% of hotel gross sales, whichever greater;

Contribution of $700,000.00 to the adjacent City park and $750,000.00 for affordable housing.