Miami-Dade County

Jungle Island hotel referendum in limbo ahead of crucial Miami Commission vote

Jungle Island in the process of gaining a new identity

Jungle Island, an 81-year-old attraction, is in the process of gaining a new identity: as an action-adventure destination. The renovation, owners hope, will save the cash-strapped park and raise attendance.
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Jungle Island, an 81-year-old attraction, is in the process of gaining a new identity: as an action-adventure destination. The renovation, owners hope, will save the cash-strapped park and raise attendance.

If a dramatic redesign of Miami’s Jungle Island proves anywhere near as adventurous as efforts to get a new hotel and lease extension on the ballot this November, the park’s future customers are going to get their money’s worth.

Amid sudden community opposition, city officials were conflicted Wednesday about whether the park’s new owners would ask commissioners to vote Thursday on a referendum to allow a $50 million hotel and extra 39 years on the life of the park’s still-lengthy city lease.

Speculation that ESJ Capital Partners had lost the three commission votes needed to get the proposal on the ballot led some to believe the company would pull its item rather than face public defeat. Heading into the evening, different officials had received different information.

Jungle Island, the lone party able to resolve the speculation, would not.

“ESJ Capital Partners has no updates at this time,” Elie Mimoun, the company’s chief operating officer, said in a statement.

It’s an odd situation for the company, which has hustled over the last month to get onto the ballot. Executives with ESJ, which purchased the park for $60 million in April, say they need swift approval to build their planned hotel in order to preserve a partnership with an unnamed “eco-adventure” brand and help finance its pricey renovations.

JI Concept
A conceptual drawing created to show the layout Jungle Island prefers for its proposed hotel, located where a parking garage curently sits off the MacArthur Causeway. David Smiley dsmiley@MiamiHerald.com

Under Miami’s charter, voters must authorize the hotel project and give commissioners the ability to execute the proposed long-term lease extension. Approvals for the hotel design and development agreement would come later.

Just two weeks ago, heading into the commission’s final scheduled meeting before an August recess and an elections department referendum deadline, ESJ seemed to have little opposition. But then community meetings intended to boost support seemed to instead launch opposition from the Venetian Islands. Complicating matters, administrators scrambled Wednesday to distribute key financial information needed to prove the negotiated deal returns “fair market value” to the city’s taxpayers.

A June 24 analysis of the proposed hotel places its value at $80 million, along with the land. A rent estimate received Tuesday puts potential annual payments at $1.2 million.

Sometimes great things happen because momentum is there. Right now we have a lot of momentum. What we don’t want to do is lose that momentum.

John Dunlap, Jungle Island CEO

Other, less flattering documents came into City Hall this week.

Emails from Venetian Islands residents who reacted negatively to a Tuesday night meeting with Jungle Island representatives also arrived in officials’ in-boxes criticizing ESJ’s proposal and lack of detail. Meanwhile, the Coalition Against Causeway Chaos, an advocacy group that contributed to the blowup between the city and Watson Island developer Flagstone, blasted the city’s administration for trying to push through what the group said was a last-minute agreement bereft of details.

“The city is rushing this,” said Roger Craver, the nonprofit’s president. “With a new mayor coming on and partly new commission, this would be a good time for the city to look at Watson Island and see what might be done there. It’s called planning.”

JI Garden
A plan for a $700,000 renovation to the Japanese Garden adjacent to Jungle Island, which would take place if a new hotel and lease extension are approved by the voters in November. David Smiley dsmiley@MiamiHerald.com

Craver’s letter to city commissioners was indicative of just how quickly the momentum had changed for the company. Only two weeks earlier, Craver had sent Jungle Island CEO John Dunlap a letter thanking him for the company’s “transparency” and willingness to share the details of its preliminary plans with the park’s neighbors.

“This is honestly shocking to me. I don’t know where it came from,” Dunlap said Tuesday in an interview during which he stressed the need to capitalize on ESJ’s purchase of the park and the emergence of a hotel partner. “Sometimes great things happen because momentum is there. Right now we have a lot of momentum. What we don’t want to do is lose that momentum.”

It may be too late.

In order to get the proposal on the ballot, ESJ likely needs the support of Ken Russell, the city commissioner whose district includes Watson Island and the Venetian Causeway. Speaking to residents Tuesday, he said he believed ESJ was “acting in good faith” to improve the park and listen to its neighbors.

But after the meeting went south, he couldn’t say whether he’d support or oppose the project Thursday if it comes for a vote.

“I’m prioritizing the neighborhood and really listening to make sure their concerns are being heard and the adverse impacts are being mitigated,” he said.

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