Miami-Dade County

Miami voters will decide on Jungle Island hotel plan for troubled Watson Island

Miami voters will decide if they want to allow Jungle Island to build a 300-room hotel on its Watson Island property.
Miami voters will decide if they want to allow Jungle Island to build a 300-room hotel on its Watson Island property. Jungle Island

To kick off a busy election season with multiple ballot questions on leasing city land for private development, Miami voters will first consider allowing the construction of a hotel on a publicly owned island where big plans and taxpayer dollars usually go to wither.

The owners of Jungle Island, Aventura-based ESJ Capital Partners, want to accomplish a historically impossible task — a successful new development on city-owned land known for failed ventures and broken promises. For ESJ to even attempt building a hotel, voters need to approve the waiving of competitive bidding in order to extend Jungle Island’s lease to 2099, with an option for a 15-year extension, and allow owners to build a privately financed 13-story, 300-room hotel on the property.

The question is on the Aug. 28 primary ballot for voters in the city of Miami. Early voting begins Monday.

The proposed lease extension calls for Jungle Island to provide public benefits to the city if the hotel is to be built, including $700,000 for maintenance repairs at the adjacent park, Ichimura Miami-Japan Garden, and $750,000 to an affordable housing fund. The owners would have the right, but not the obligation, to build a hotel of a maximum of 130 feet.

Jungle Island would have four years to obtain a master building permit and six additional years to finalize construction of a hotel. If owners miss either of the two deadlines, the lease extension would be negated.

Upon opening, the hotel would be required to pay $250,000 in rent annually for three years. The rent would then increase to $1.22 million or 5 percent of total gross revenue, whichever is greater, though the rent increase could happen sooner if the hotel’s gross revenues hit $23 million before the three-year mark.

The hotel is part of a larger vision to revamp the park into an adventure-themed attraction that owners hope will draw locals and tourists alike.

“Jungle Island’s enhancements will create a true eco-adventure destination for residents in Miami as well as tourists, offering an attraction that is offered nowhere else in the city,” said John Dunlap, CEO of Iconic Attractions and president of Jungle Island. “As of now, residents have to go to places like Orlando to have this kind of experience. If the voters approve this, it will be in our own backyard instead of hours away.”

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

Nearby residents, largely from the neighboring Venetian Islands, have long opposed such developments on Watson Island because of traffic and noise concerns, as well as the poor track record of promised projects on the island.

In 2001, voters approved plans for a $1 billion complex with a hotel, shops and a yacht marina called Flagstone Island Gardens, which looms large only as a stalled concept. Mired in years of legal, economic and political problems, Flagstone’s owners have completed dock space for the marina. After losing a lawsuit against Flagstone earlier this year, the city could be on the hook for tens of millions of dollars, though that final amount won’t be determined until a hearing later this year.

Dunlap acknowledged the history underpinning skepticism about the hotel proposal, promising that this project would be different.

“Jungle Island recognizes what has happened on Watson Island in the past, and as a member of the community for over a decade, and with its new leadership and ownership, we assure that benefits are being privately financed and will not use any taxpayer funds,” he said.

That would mark a change from Jungle Island’s financially troubled past. The park, formerly named Parrot Jungle, moved to Watson Island in 2003 from its original location in Pinecrest with the help of a $25 million loan from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Lackluster attendance slowed growth and led to missed rent and loan payments, forcing the park to rely on dollars from Miami-Dade County and the city of Miami to stay open. The park has been current on payments since 2012.

After ESJ Capital Partners bought the park in 2017, they announced they wanted to revamp the park with an “eco-adventure” theme. Dunlap said the park committed to reducing the height of some attractions and adding landscaping to lessen the visual impact and noise from the park.

Before commissioners voted to put the question on the ballot — approving the language hours before the deadline set by county elections officials — residents took issue with the wording. They had urged commissioners to postpone the referendum because they felt it was not clear from the ballot question that voter approval would allow Jungle Island to build a hotel, but owners would not be compelled to build it.

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.