Miami-Dade County

Should voters decide on Jungle Island's hotel plan? Opponents say it's misleading

Rendering of a jungle-themed hotel that Jungle Island is proposing. The hotel would be 13 stories high with 300 rooms.
Rendering of a jungle-themed hotel that Jungle Island is proposing. The hotel would be 13 stories high with 300 rooms. Jungle Island

Jungle Island's owners need Miami voters' blessing to build a 13-story hotel on prime public waterfront land, but some opponents are saying the details of the deal are not clear in the proposed ballot question.

Commissioners have called a special meeting Friday — the last day the city can submit a ballot question to the county elections department — to approve a citywide referendum question for the Aug. 28 primary ballot so voters can decide the future of 18.5 acres of city-owned waterfront land. Jungle Island's owners, Aventura-based ESJ Capital Partners, want to build a 13-story, 300-room hotel with a jungle theme. Once a hotel is built, the developer would be required to contribute money to the nearby Ichimura Miami-Japan Garden and the low-income housing fund.

Pushing the deadline, commissioners will on Friday consider placing this language on the August ballot:

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

  • Additional annual rent for the hotel of $250,000.00 increasing to $1,150,000.00 or 5.0% of hotel gross sales, whichever greater;

  • A contribution of $700,000.00 to the adjacent City park and $500,000.00 for low-income housing.

Some residents of the nearby Venetian Islands, who have long opposed large-scale development on Watson Island, object. They say the proposed ballot language does not sufficiently explain the whole deal and they argue that the city is rushing to put a large project to a public vote without allowing the public to understand what is being proposed.

"If this is the deal the city is giving Jungle Island, then the city should be honest with the public about it,” said Sam Dubbin, an attorney representing residents from the nearby 1000 Venetian Way condo tower who oppose the deal. The tower is on Biscayne Island, the Venetian Island closest to Watson Island.

"The impression is if you vote yes, there will be a hotel built, there will be money for the garden and there will be money for housing. But that might not be for a long time, if ever,” Dubbin said.

If commissioners vote in favor Friday, voters will decide in August on these questions, all included in one measure:

  • 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 13 stories. The hotel would be privately financed.

  • If the park builds a hotel, it would contribute $700,000 in maintenance repairs at the adjoining park, Ichimura Miami-Japan Garden, and donate $500,000 to a low income housing fund.

Opponents are emphasizing that under the proposed lease, there is no obligation for Jungle Island to build a hotel. If the owners choose to, it could be years before milestones are reached that would trigger increased rent payments. Under the proposed lease extension, Jungle Island would have to finish construction of a hotel by 2028. When the hotel secures a temporary certificate of occupancy, it would be required to make the payments for the garden and housing fund.

Upon opening, the hotel would be required to pay $250,000 in rent annually for three years and then the rent would increase to $1.15 million or 5 percent of total gross revenue, whichever is greater. However, the rent increase could happen sooner if the hotel's gross revenues hit $23 million before the three-year mark.

Currently, Jungle Island pays a minimum rent of $502,158.60, with possible increases depending on gross revenues. In the 2017 budget year, rent payments totaled $846,222.69.

These details, Dubbin said, are not clear in the ballot question being considered Friday.

"The average voter will have no idea that that’s what they’re voting on," he said.

Watson Island rendering.jpg
Rendering of a proposed hotel on Jungle Island at Watson Island. Residents on the Venetian Islands are concerned there is not yet enough information on the project for voters to make a decision. Jungle Island

On the other hand, Jungle Island representatives have touted the deal as a boon to the city on a property that has historically struggled to make City Hall money.

In May, the ownership announced that it planned to pursue building a 13-story, family-friendly hotel where the park’s parking garage currently sits. The plans call for a 300-room, jungle-themed hotel built over a parking garage at the site of the current garage.

An earlier proposal for a hotel on the Jungle Island property was shelved last year due to opposition from Venetian Island residents.

"We would appreciate the opportunity to move forward and believe that the development of a hotel on the site is an extremely positive step for the city, and important for the long-term viability of Jungle Island," said John Dunlap, CEO of Iconic Attractions and president of Jungle Island, in a statement. "Jungle Island is not only an important asset for tourists and residents throughout the city, but as a regional attraction and we have worked diligently to communicate with all concerned stakeholders, those who live nearby, as well all others."

Dunlap said that the park has made a "number of concessions" to the park's neighbors, including reorienting the hotel so that it won't block neighbors' views.

"We have made these concessions in an effort to be a good neighbor and we are hopeful that will be recognized and appreciated,” Dunlap said.

Jungle Island, which was named Parrot Jungle when it debuted in its original Pinecrest location, had struggled to make ends meet financially for years. For the move to Watson Island, Jungle Island took out a $25 million federal loan to help it develop a new, enhanced park, but those plans never materialized. The city and Miami-Dade County tried to keep it afloat by cutting checks for loan payments when the park missed its payments.

ESJ Capital Partners took over ownership of Jungle Island in 2017 in a $60 million deal that included assuming $45 million in debt.

The new owners have embarked on a mission to turn the animal attraction into a family-focused adventure park. By the end of the year, the park will add a tree walk village where guests can walk in the tree canopy, a new kids playground and education area, a trampoline park, a new restaurant with a FlowRider, a surfing simulator and zip lines, Dunlap said. Next year, it will debut a man-made Crystal Lagoon.

Hotel rendering.jpg
Rendering of a proposed family-friendly hotel at the current site of the parking garage on Jungle Island. The park will seek the city of Miami's approval for a referendum that could go to voters in August. Jungle Island

To support its bid for a hotel, Jungle Island created a website encouraging supporters to email commissioners about the project and to sign a petition in favor of the hotel. As of noon Thursday, it had more than 10,900 signatures. The website, yestoanewjungleisland.com, frames the hotel as a major step toward transforming the park into a “world-class destination with enhanced attractions and amenities.”

Building the hotel will not cost residents "A SINGLE PENNY," the website reads.

But the opposition paints a much less rosy picture of the proposed changes.

Another website, jungleislandopposition.org, created by a political action committee of the same name, claims that if Jungle Island wins approval for the hotel, "we all lose." The PAC is made up of residents who feel the project's scope will worsen traffic on the MacArthur Causeway, cause noise pollution and ecological damage through the construction of a seawall, present health and safety issues and lower property values. The group also questions whether the $250,000 annual hotel rent is too little for the prime waterfront location.

The group is urging opponents to email commissioners and sign its own online petition, which as of Thursday afternoon, had about 360 signatures.

"We are committed to fighting against ESJ Capital Partners development on Jungle Island," the PAC says on its website. "...We believe that ESJ Capital Partners has not made a good faith effort to avoid significant adverse off-site impacts to its surrounding neighborhoods."

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