Jungle Island hotel plans check in with new backing
A Miami board is recommending special rezoning for the proposed Jungle Island hotel and the rest of the Watson Island land being leased by the city, moving the project closer to approval.
While members of the Planning, Zoning and Appeals Board questioned whether the project could affect a nearby residential building and the use of the Special Area Plan (SAP) provision, they recommended approval of the SAP by a 5-2 vote Dec. 16.
Approved by referendum in 2018, the eight-story Jungle Island hotel off the MacArthur Causeway would have up to 300 guestrooms atop a reconstructed parking garage.
The application describes the hotel linking to the Jungle Island theme park, as well as to the Ichimura Miami Japanese Garden through a signature stairway. Structures by the hotel and the garage would be screened with vines and green walls to blend with the Jungle Island aesthetic.
The project would send the city $750,000 for affordable housing, $700,000 for the Japanese garden, and a yearly $35,000 contribution to the Liberty City Community Revitalization Trust for the 70-year term of the lease.
The project would also feature other benefits, including a $250,000 contribution for the purchase of a trolley that would have a stop at Jungle Island and a 20% discount to the city for functions held at Jungle Island.
Spencer Crowley, an attorney representing the lessee, ESJ JI Leasehold LLC, urged the board not to defer a vote because the project must meet deadlines, including obtaining a building permit by 2023. He also mentioned that the city stands to earn $250,000 a year when the building permit is issued for the hotel, and once the hotel is stabilized, the base rent escalates to $1.2 million and 5% of gross revenue.
He said there had already been outreach with the One Thousand Venetian Way Condominium Association to assuage fears over the hotel and added there would be more before the items reach the city commission. He addressed the SAP, which would consist of more than 18 acres on Watson Island, 5 acres of which would be rezoned to allow for the hotel use.
“We’re obviously aware of the broader context of SAPs in the city, so it wasn’t necessarily our choice to do that, but the way the code is written right now forced us into that situation.”
Available for projects larger than nine acres, an SAP is a provision in the city’s Miami 21 zoning code that offers developers more latitude than is allowed strictly under the city’s zoning code, while allowing the applicant and the city to hash out a deal that could feature more community benefits. SAPs have been met with community pushback, with critics saying they have led to speculation and resident displacement.
Board member Anthony Parrish recalled that a majority of the board had voted to recommend the city do away with the SAP provision. The city commission withdrew legislation nixing SAPs with the expectation a special task force will review it along with the rest of Miami 21.
Mr. Parrish raised questions about why the city was looking to make up for the lost civic space – the designation for parks – from Watson Island through the Jungle Island SAP, with the portion of Hobie Beach on the south side of the Rickenbacker Causeway. The city’s no-net policy on park space means that any lost park space would have to be replaced elsewhere in the city.
“I’ve got to say if I’m just an ordinary citizen of the City of Miami, I’d say ‘that’s not what the no-net loss of parkland was designed to do. It was to say that when you give up parkland here, you actually have to buy additional parkland somewhere else and create a park,’” Mr. Parrish said,” and it just seems to me a little bit disingenuous for the city to say, ‘oh, we’re going to take this piece of undesignated land’… I thought it was a park.”
Deputy Planning Director Jeremy Calleros Gauger responded that the no-net-loss policy is vague in the city’s comprehensive plan. He mentioned that when the city moved forward with a helipad on Watson Island, to make up for the loss of that land that was designated as civic space they turned to the north side of Hobie Beach on the Rickenbacker. Similarly, he pointed to the hotel being built on the site of a parking lot currently designated as civic space, which isn’t acting as a park.
“I actually think the applicant’s done a great job in limiting the footprint to an area that’s already developed as a parking garage. We’re handling something of a technicality, I would say with a technicality,” Mr. Calleros Gauger said, noting that by designating the land on Hobie Beach as civic space, it’ll give it additional protection.
Mr. Parrish and board member Melody Torrens also suggested putting off the vote so the One Thousand Venetian Way Condominium Association could have time to look over the plans. An attorney for the association called in to the meeting to ask that the board defer action, saying there hadn’t been enough time to analyze the project documents.
“To give them the presentation on Monday and not expect them to hesitate and ask for a little time to look it over, it doesn’t seem unreasonable,” Ms. Torrens said.
Mr. Parrish moved to defer the legislation’s land-use portion of Jungle Island, but he then withdrew his motion. The board went on to unanimously give a positive recommendation to the land-use portion of the property on Watson Island and the zoning and land-use changes for Hobie Beach. Mr. Parrish and board member Paul Mann voted against the SAP.