Jungle Island owner wins Miami board approval for hotel and attractions

ESJ Capital Partners plans a 300-room hotel, theme park attractions and retail complex

Rendering of the new Jungle Island with a 300-room hotel (EoA Group)
Rendering of the new Jungle Island with a 300-room hotel (EoA Group)

Two years after Miami voters approved Jungle Island’s expansion, the theme park’s owners are moving ahead with a proposal to develop a new 300-room hotel, attractions and retail complex that incorporate green design elements.

The Miami Planning and Zoning Appeals Board on Wednesday approved a special area plan proposal submitted by Jungle Island owner ESJ Capital Partners, as well as a request to change most of the city-owned property’s zoning designation to restricted commercial. A special area plan, or SAP, allows developers of nine or more contiguous acres to build massively dense projects in exchange for providing the city with public benefits. Earlier this year, the same board voted 6-3 to recommend that the city commission stop considering future SAPs.

The planning board voted 5-2 to let the Jungle Island SAP move on to the full city commission for a yet-to-be determined first reading. The vote to change the zoning designation from “public park and recreation” to “restricted commercial” was unanimous.

Spencer Crowley, an Akerman shareholder representing ESJ, told board members that the Miami 21 zoning code requires property owners or lease holders of more than 9 acres to automatically apply for a special area plan. Jungle Island, which has a city lease until 2099, sits on 18.5 acres of prime, public waterfront land on Watson Island.

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“It wasn’t necessarily our choice,” Crowley said of his client’s SAP proposal. “The way the code is written forced us into that situation.” He also said that the developer’s zoning applications had languished for nearly a year, and that the delay is now threatening ESJ’s timeline for obtaining building permits by 2023, as required by Jungle Island’s lease. “We would respectfully request that you allow us to move forward so that we can meet the deadlines in our lease,” Crowley said.

In August 2018, Miami voters approved a city charter amendment to waive competitive bidding and allow ESJ to modify Jungle Island’s lease. The changes granted Jungle Island an additional 39 years, as well as permission to build new attractions and a hotel with a maximum height of 130 feet. The eight-story tower would be placed directly on top of a new four-story parking garage that would feature a rooftop converted into a lush, sculpted garden, according to documents ESJ submitted to the city.

The garage exterior will be screened with vines on mesh and green walls in organic layering that enhance the existing tree canopy seen from Parrot Jungle Trail and the MacArthur Causeway. Two existing buildings with conference rooms and ballrooms would be renovated and partly expanded for a total of 40,000 square feet of retail, restaurant and meeting room space.

According to Crowley, ESJ Capital Partners will begin paying $250,000 in annual rent once it obtains approval for the building permit. Once the hotel is built and operating, the base rent kicks up to $1.2 million a year, plus 5 percent of gross revenues. The proposed public benefits include $650,000 for affordable housing, Crowley said.