Miami-Dade County

Jungle Island wants to build a hotel on city-owned land. Miami voters just said yes.

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

Miami voters approved allowing Jungle Island’s owners to build a 300-room hotel on city-owned Watson Island, clearing a path for a major project proposed for a place where big plans have historically run into trouble.

With 100 percent of the vote counted, unofficial results showed 59 percent of voters were in favor of the plan.

Jungle Island’s owners have proposed building a 13-story hotel with eco-adventure themed attractions, but to even pursue such a project, they needed voters to agree to waive competitive bidding in order to extend Jungle Island’s lease to 2099 and allow for a hotel.

With voter approval, the proposed lease extension gives Jungle Island the right, but not the obligation, to build a privately financed hotel with a maximum height of 130 feet. If the hotel is built, owners will have to provide the city public benefits including $750,000 to an affordable housing fund and $700,000 for maintenance repairs at the adjacent park, Ichimura Miami-Japan Garden. The lease includes an option for a 15-year extension.

“First and foremost, we are extremely grateful to the citizens of the city of Miami for their confidence in our vision of a new Jungle Island. I can assure you that we will not let them down,” said Elie Mimoun, chief operating officer of ESJ Capital Partners, the company that owns Jungle Island.

“As to next steps, we have all been focused on the referendum process, so we have not wanted to get ahead of ourselves. We will now be looking at a variety of options as to those next steps for the hotel. In any case, we need to now work through the city’s clearly defined planning & zoning process, and we will of course continue to work with all of our neighbors.”

Under the measure endorsed by voters Tuesday, Jungle Island will have four years to obtain a master building permit and six additional years to finalize construction of a hotel. The lease would be negated if owners missed either of the two deadlines.

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

Big ideas for Watson Island have floundered in the past. Consider the plan for Flagstone Island Gardens, approved by voters in 2001 and 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.

Jungle Island itself has struggled since arriving on Watson Island in 2003, when it moved from its original location in Pinecrest. That move was funded by a $25 million loan from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, a loan Jungle Island had trouble paying back due to lackluster attendance. After missing loan and rent payments, Miami and Miami-Dade’s governments had to support Jungle Island with taxpayer dollars. Since 2012, Jungle Island has been current on payments.

Jungle Island was purchased in 2017 by Aventura-based ESJ Capital Partners, which announced plans to revamp the park with an “eco-adventure” theme. John Dunlap, CEO of Iconic Attractions and president of Jungle Island, said the park is committed to addressing residents’ concerns over noise and the impact on their views.

Watson Island’s history bred skepticism from some residents of the nearby Venetian Islands, in addition to concerns over increased traffic, noise and lights from the expanded attraction. Residents from 1000 Venetian Way, a condominium on Biscayne Island directly across the water from Jungle Island, did not take a formal position on the referendum before the vote. In a statement issued during the lead-up to the election, Adam H. Koffler said he and other residents will keep a close eye on any new development at Jungle Island.

“The developer has assured us of its sincere effort to mitigate these intrusions, however, only time will tell,” he said. “We are closely monitoring permits in order to protect our interests provided in the land lease.”

As of Aug. 23, Jungle Island’s owners had spent $264,204 on its pro-hotel campaign, according to election finance data from the city.