Undeterred by COVID-19’s crushing impact on the hospitality industry, the owners of Miami’s temporarily closed Jungle Island attraction are plowing ahead with an ambitious plan for a hotel and new features that would complete the former Parrot Jungle’s transformation into a full-fledged “eco-adventure” resort.
Nearly two-and-a-half years after winning city voters’ approval to extend and amend its lease for 18 acres of publicly owned waterfront land on Watson Island, owner ESJ Capital Partners will go before the Miami Commission on Thursday to seek an OK for a package of land-use and zoning changes that would allow construction of a hotel with up to 300 rooms. The hotel, to be built over the attraction’s parking garage, would be capped at 130 feet, or the equivalent of about 12 stories.
Jungle Island’s proposal specifies a vision for a revamped attraction centered around vigorous activities, though owners say they intend to maintain its popular educational programs as well. The zoning changes would permit installation of features sought by the owners but not previously allowed under the old lease or the city’s Miami 21 code — including a zip-line course, water slides, a bungee-cord jump and a “lazy river” running through the park’s lush, leafy gardens.
In exchange for approval of a Special Area Plan — a sometimes-controversial zoning category that provides developers additional density or planning flexibility — ESJ would be obligated to make about $1.5 million in contributions to the city for affordable housing and other public benefits.
If Jungle Island’s plan bears fruit, it could help push forward a long-promised, but mostly undelivered, large-scale upgrade of publicly owned Watson Island, which sits in the middle of Biscayne Bay just off downtown Miami along the MacArthur Causeway to Miami Beach.
The man-made island, mostly fallow for much of its history, was once home to a Goodyear blimp base and a low-key, open-air fish market where boat captains sold their catch directly to customers. It still has a modest seaplane terminal operation that dates back decades.
Most of the island is today leased by the city to private operators. While some, like the Miami Children’s Museum, have been successful, others — including Jungle Island, the seaplane operation and a heliport operator — have either struggled or failed to deliver promised projects and improvements. The fish market was replaced by a mega-yacht marina, but the developer, Flagstone, has yet to break ground on a companion hotel and shopping center voters approved in 2001.
The Aventura-based ESJ will go to the commission with a strong favorable recommendation from the city’s planning board, which has previously called for the curbing of SAPs. Critics say the super-sized plans, available to developers owning more than nine acres, promote gentrification and oversized development in some areas.
But the board last month voted 7-0 and 5-2 in favor of separate pieces of Jungle Island’s proposal after a majority of members concluded the changes could help the long-struggling attraction thrive and would not inordinately affect Jungle Island’s immediate surroundings, all public land under lease to private operators.
The only objections have come from residents of a Venetian Islands condo across a narrow channel from Jungle Island who are concerned about light and noise from the new recreational activities. ESJ said it already has redesigned some elements in their plan and eliminated a large, lagoon-shaped swimming pool in response to those concerns; the board instructed the partnership to continue meeting with the association to address any further issues.
Leaders of the 1000 Venetian condo association say they still worry about the impact of the new activities on their quality of life. Association president Morton Ehrlich said Jungle Island’s beach club, Joia, which is still operating, attracts boaters who anchor in the channel, roar their engines and blast music, creating a nuisance and a hazard to passing boaters and wildlife such as manatees that frequent the area.
“Its not only dangerous but it’s terribly loud and terribly disturbing,” Ehrlich said. “While we hope they are very successful, we will get the brunt of the noise that will be coming from Jungle Island as it develops. Not that they haven’t moved some things around, but there are going to be a great many activities taking place.”
ESJ says its plan restricts intense activities to the property’s interior and away from the shoreline so as not to affect Venetian Causeway residents. Its officers say the hotel and new recreational attractions will expand Jungle Island’s appeal to local families and tourists, including cruise passengers who could choose to stay overnight at the resort, while keeping its nature-oriented, intimate ambiance.
The attraction recently sent its orangutans into retirement at an ape sanctuary in Tampa but will keep its parrots, birds and lemurs roaming with handlers throughout the park’s attractions to give it a living-jungle feel, said Micha Dubernard, ESJ chief of staff.
“It’s an environment offering something different from South Beach or downtown Miami,” Dubernard said in an interview. “We don’t want to be a pure water park. We don’t want to be a zoo. It’s a balance — very lush and very green, and we want to keep that. We want people to feel like they are somewhere else, in a different world, and not in middle of an urban area.
“The community is really attached to this place. That’s part of the identify of Jungle Island. That’s who we want to stay. We don’t want Times Square at Jungle Island.”
In exchange for approvals, ESJ would pay $650,000 into city affordable-housing funds and $250,000 for a new trolley bus to serve Watson Island. The public benefits package also includes $700,000 for maintenance and repairs at the adjacent Ichimura Miami Japanese Garden, a small city park run separately by a nonprofit, and improvements at Jungle Island’s beach.
ESJ also proposes to build an unusual public stairway from the hotel to the garden whose design is inspired by the ancient Japanese art of kintsugi, in which pieces of broken pottery are put back together with gold lacquer. The stairway was designed by EoA Group, a Coral Gables architecture firm that will also design the hotel.
“This is a fine proposal in my view, and the proper use of an SAP,” said planning-board member Andy Parrish, a vocal critic of SAP proposals in poor minority neighborhoods.
Parrish did object to what he suggested was a bit of sleight-of-hand by the city. The Jungle Island proposal would remove the “parks” classification from the five acres of land already occupied by its massive parking garage. Because the city has a vaguely defined policy of not allowing any overall loss of designated park land, planners proposed instead classifying 11 acres of Hobie Beach on the south side of the Rickenbacker Causeway as a park, resulting in a net gain on paper.
The board approved the proposal after planners acknowledged the technicality while noting the Jungle Island garage is not really a park anyway. The city planners also said the reclassification would confer protection to Hobie Beach, which they said was never legally designed as a park through an oversight.
Jungle Island’s owners and their attorney, Spencer Crowley of Akerman, stress they’re under pressure to meet strict deadlines on progress imposed by the revised lease agreement with the city.
“We have hard and fast deadlines,” Dubernard said. “When people ask us to delay this, we can’t. It’s tricky.”
The city has tightened requirements for leases on public land following long delays on some other projects — most notably the planned Flagstone Island Gardens resort hotel across the MacArthur Causeway road from Jungle Island. While developer Flagstone completed a big-yacht marina, it has yet to break ground on a hotel with 270 to 300 rooms and a shopping center that was approved by voters in 2001.
Miami commissioners canceled the deal in 2017, but Flagstone sued and won when a court found the city in breach of the agreement. To settle, the city agreed to fork over $5 million in cash and $5 million in rent credits to Flagstone.
Flagstone, controlled by developer Mehmet Bayraktar, issued a statement through a spokesman saying it intends to move forward with its hotel plan and supports Jungle Island’s proposals.
“Flagstone is grateful that Florida, as compared to other parts of the world, has fared better economically during the pandemic. We are also grateful that the distribution of the vaccine is now underway, and that there is light at the end of the tunnel,” Flagstone said. “We firmly believe that Watson Island is a unique destination for both residents and visitors of Miami, and we are continuing forward with our plans to develop the land side of Island Gardens. We also believe the modernization of Jungle Island will help Island Gardens and Watson Island in its entirety.”
The Jungle Island deal doesn’t obligate ESJ to put up the hotel, but the city can rescind the extension and the developers’ right to build if they don’t do so. The agreement, signed in 2019, lays out several specific deadlines for ESJ to obtain building permits, break ground and complete construction by 2025. Dubernard said ESJ is negotiating with the city to extend the deadlines because of the pandemic’s impact, but remains “committed to do its best to meet all current deadlines, Covid-19 notwithstanding.”
That means ESJ must proceed with approvals or risk losing the new lease, which runs through 2099 and with a 15-year optional extension, Dubernard said.
Dubernard said ESJ is not overly worried about its ability to carry out the project, even though uncertainty over the pandemic’s duration and its long-term impact on tourism have made obtaining financing for a hotel project nearly impossible for now. COVID-19 has also wreaked havoc on Jungle Island’s bottom line.
The attraction reopened only briefly after mandatory lockdowns before closing again amid last summer’s resurgence. It remains closed with no reopening date, Dubernard said. Its club-like beach restaurant, Joia Beach, is operating, and its popular ballroom will reopen soon, with limited capacity, he added.
Getting all needed approvals, including approved construction plans and building permits, will take at least a year, Dubernard said. By that time, he said, banks should be more open to financing construction of the Jungle Island hotel. If that fails, ESJ can turn to its partners and investors in a fund managed by the firm that actually owns Jungle Island, he said.
Since closing the park, ESJ has finished construction of one of the attraction’s new features, an indoor trampoline park, which is ready for use as soon as it’s safe to reopen, Dubernard said.
Although the hotel’s design isn’t finalized, Dubernard said it would go atop a parking garage, likely a modified version of the existing structure. The garage rooftop would be covered in landscaping at the hotel’s lobby level, with a walkway around its perimeter and the stairway down to the Japanese Garden. The hotel lobby would also connect directly to the existing ballroom facilities.
The design would ensure that the hotel and the existing buildings are integrated into the adventure park for a “cohesive” experience, Dubernard said.
The park, originally known as Parrot Jungle, was first established in a natural tropical wooded hammock and sinkhole in 1936 in what is today the village of Pinecrest. Known for its shows featuring performing cockatoos, macaws and other parrots, its flock of pink flamingos and its extensive bird exhibits, Parrot Jungle became a picturesque and beloved landmark over the decades.
But it struggled to duplicate that success after previous owners moved it from Pinecrest in 2003 because the suburban municipality would not allow it to expand to host large events.
On Watson Island, the owners sought to replicate the green, thickly wooded ambience of the original with limited success. Name changes, the addition of apes and other animals and event space rentals failed to sufficiently boost lackluster attendance, and the park was forced to rely on financial help from the city and Miami-Dade County to stay open and pay back a $25 million federal loan that helped finance its construction.
ESJ announced its intention to remake the park as an eco-adventure-themed attraction shortly after taking over the property in 2017.