The owners of Jungle Island have submitted a proposed design for their promised hotel to Miami planners, hitting the first in a series of benchmarks under a voter-approved deal that would transform the struggling Watson Island theme park into an eco-adventure-oriented resort.
New architectural renderings released Tuesday by attraction owner ESJ Capital Partners show a streamlined hotel building very much like the one shown in images made public last summer, when the developers were trying to win public support before the August referendum. About 60 percent of Miami voters supported an extension of the attraction’s lease to 2099 to allow construction of a 300-room, 13-story hotel hotel on the public property.
The hotel would be built atop a new garage that would replace the attraction’s existing garage, which lacks sufficient capacity to support the expansion, said Elie Mimoun, managing partner for Aventura-based ESJ. The hotel would have landscaped gardens atop the garage and a rooftop bar overlooking Biscayne Bay and downtown Miami, the renderings show.
The design, by Coral Gables architectural firm EoA, led by Malcolm Berg, is meant to recall a cruise ship, Mimoun said. Watson Island sits across Government Cut from PortMiami’s cruise terminals.
“This is what we wanted to do. This is three years of studies that we felt would mesh the best with the spirit of our park,” Mimoun said. “Even if you’re in South Beach, Downtown Miami, it will mesh like it is a cruise ship.”
The submitted designs, which will be reviewed by the city planning department, are not construction plans or a zoning application. Those will come later, once the city approves the design, Mimoun said.
“They’re going to come say, ‘Yes we love it, no we hate it,’ or anything in between,” he said. “Once we clear the road with them, that’s when we start the zoning process.”
Under the terms of the agreement with the city, ESJ had 60 days after the referendum to submit hotel site designs. The developers must comply with a strict timeline for approvals and construction or risk losing the lease extension. ESJ has four years to obtain a master building permit and six additional years to finalize hotel construction.
The city insisted on the benchmarks after other projects on Watson Island have foundered. The adjacent Flagstone Island Gardens resort, approved by voters in 2001, has been bogged down in more than a decade of legal, economic and political problems. The city could be on the hook for millions after losing a lawsuit against Flagstone related to the stalled development.
The agreement doesn’t obligate ESJ to erect the hotel, but the city can rescind the extension and the developers’ right to build if they don’t do so, Mimoun said. The hotel will be privately financed, but ESJ also acts as an investment fund manager and doesn’t expect any problems raising construction capital, he said.
“We have every intention to build this hotel. It’s an added value to the park and the city of Miami,” he said.
However, winning zoning approvals for the hotel may be tricky, Mimoun and city deputy planning director Jeremy Calleros Gauger said. Jungle Island was built in 2003 with a special permit under a previous zoning code, but different rules enacted when the city subsequently approved its current Miami 21 code may now come into play, they said.
That means the project could require zoning warrants or exceptions and possibly a public hearing before the city planning board, Calleros Gauger said. Some residents of the nearby Venetian Islands have raised strong concerns over increased traffic, noise and lights from the expanded attraction.
The developers may face further complications in figuring out where patrons will park while the hotel is built, since the project requires demolition of the existing garage, Mimoun said. ESJ is working with the city on alternatives that could involve shuttling visitors to Jungle Island from nearby parking facilities so that the park can remain open during construction, he added.
The deal voters approved in August waived competitive bidding and authorized the city to extend the existing lease with ESJ, which bought the attraction in 2017. The agreement caps the hotel’s height at 130 feet and requires ESJ to provide a series of public benefits that include $750,000 to an affordable housing fund and $700,000 for maintenance and repairs at the adjacent Ichimura Miami-Japan Garden. The lease includes an option for a 15-year extension.
Mimoun said the “active resort” revamp for Jungle Island is the key to reviving the attraction’s fortunes. The park, originally known as Parrot Jungle, struggled after moving from suburban Pinecrest. It was established in a natural tropical wooded hammock and sinkhole in 1936, becoming a beloved landmark for decades. The original location is now Pinecrest Gardens, a public park that retains the original’s architectural features and lush landscaping.
“We are doing this to keep the legacy alive and make the park for the next century,” Mimoun said. “We see that area as the best location in Miami by far. Closest to downtown, closest to MB, this is right to be a destination location where people want to come.”