Watson Island’s Miami Seaplane Base is getting an expansion — but the owner wants more

A Cessna 206 amphibious seaplane from the Miami Seaplane Base on Watson Island takes off in front of downtown Miami.
A Cessna 206 amphibious seaplane from the Miami Seaplane Base on Watson Island takes off in front of downtown Miami. Miami Herald archives 2010

Brand new amenities, including a restaurant and seaplane floating docks, are coming to the Miami Seaplane Base on Watson Island.

But the president of the company that owns the property, Ignacio J. Vega-Penichet, said he is still waiting for approval of two larger enhancements, a boutique hotel and a lighthouse that will go on top. A semi-autonomous Miami government agency shot down those additions in 2016.

Vega-Penichet has been fighting with city government about the hotel addition ever since.

The seaplane base, built in 1926, is located at 1000 MacArthur Causeway and occupies a little over 100,000 square feet of land, most of it not built on. Currently, the base consists of a one-story terminal, including office space and a waiting area for guests waiting to board seaplanes, most often to the Bahamas. Next to the office is the seaplane landing area and the trailer that hosts the current customs and immigration center for seaplane travelers. There’s a grass area for parking in front.

But Vega-Penichet, who is president of both Nautilus Enterprises, LLC and Chalks Airline, Inc., received approval from the city of Miami’s Planning, Zoning and Approvals Board June 19 week for phase one of his enhancement plan. Vega-Penichet said the Department of Real Estate Asset Management approved the plan in February. The city department declined to comment for this story.

Vega-Penichet said this phase will cost about $30 million to complete and will take up about a third of the available property space. He is planning to construct a new terminal building that will include a restaurant, a customs and immigration center, a passenger waiting area and lounges for the airlines that use the base, similar to a land airport setup. He also plans to build floating docks for seaplane arrivals.

The Miami Seaplane Base, pictured here four years ago, has a one-story office space with a guest waiting area. Matias J. Ocner Miami Herald File/2015

In addition to improving travel for seaplane customers, Vega-Penichet hopes locals will flock to the restaurant, which will be open to the public, not just people awaiting their flight. He said he wants people to come and watch seaplanes take off and return to the dock, like they used to.

Vega-Penichet said he hopes to start construction as soon as possible. He’s yet to hire construction contractors, but has hired Kobi Karp Architecture and Interior Design Inc. He said he expects construction to take 16 months from the day it begins.

But before he breaks ground, Vega-Penichet is hoping to get his entire original plan, which included the construction of a hotel with a lighthouse on top, approved as well. However, the city says the property is not zoned for a hotel.

Vega-Penichet, 64, a retired oil and gas lawyer, moved to Miami in 2000. He formed Nautilus Enterprises to purchase Chalks Airline in 2014 in order to acquire the seaplane base. Vega-Penichet, a Cuban immigrant, said he always imagined placing a lighthouse on the property as a dedication to the people of Miami.

“A lighthouse would represent, you know, when you’re in a storm, out in the sea — the salvation,” Vega-Penichet said. “And Miami was that for Cubans, Mexicans, Colombians.”

Vega-Penichet said his original plan was struck down by the Miami Sports and Exhibition Authority in 2016 because it didn’t approve of the hotel. The authority subleased the property to Vega-Penichet’s company until the agency was abolished in 2018.

The approved first phase for the base enhancement, rendered by Kobi Karp Architecture, will include a new restaurant, customs and immigration center and floating docks for seaplane landings, among other amenities. Kobi Karp Architecture and Interior Design Inc. Miami Seaplane Base.

Vega-Penichet said after his full plan was rejected, the city attorney suggested he submit his plan in phases, starting with the terminal facility and food and beverage service, which were areas of the plan not in dispute. The Miami Sports and Exhibition Authority then approved the plan, on the condition that Chalks would waive its right to ever build a hotel. Vega-Penichet rejected the condition and resubmitted the proposal. The authority never issued another decision on the plan before being abolished. The city of Miami has since taken over as landlord.

Vega-Penichet said he believes his full plan would cost between $70 and $80 million to complete, not including the lighthouse, and could also be completed in the 16-month phase one window.

He said the only opposition from his neighbors he was aware of is from Flagstone Island Gardens, also on Watson Island. He said Island Gardens said that if the seaplane base opened a hotel, it would compete with theirs. Miami recently settled a lawsuit with Island Gardens that will enable the property to resume its plan to build two hotels, retail and a garage on Watson Island, according to the Daily Business Review.

Island Gardens did not return a request for comment.

One of Vega-Penichet’s other Watson Island neighbors, Jungle Island, is more open to the idea of a hotel.

John Dunlap, CEO of Iconic Attractions Group and president of Jungle Island, said that he is supportive of Vega-Penichet pursuing approval for his enhancement plan. He added that any guests who go to and stay on Watson Island are also potential park guests.

Dunlap said any approved construction would be helpful for the island and the city at large. “Further plans to makeover Watson Island into a booming economic engine would be a win for all of us,” he said in a statement.

Vega-Penichet’s company filed a lawsuit against the Miami Sports and Exhibition Authority to build the hotel and lighthouse. Since that agency was abolished, the company is now in litigation with the city.

“We believe that we have the right to construct the hotel,” Vega-Penichet said. He said he has the right to build on all 2.9 acres of his property in his contract.

The Miami city attorney’s office declined to comment, citing ongoing litigation.

City Planning Director Francisco Garcia said that the seaplane base property simply doesn’t have the zoning designation to construct a hotel. He said the property is currently designated as “civic institutional” land, which doesn’t allow owners to build hotels or other lodgings. He said the base would need to get a zoning change in order to build a hotel, which would require a public hearings process. He added that there’s “no guaranteed positive outcome.” And that even if it went smoothly, it could take four or five months.

He said that a hotel is “above and beyond” what has been approved. But he added that the city will work with Vega-Penichet to get this first phase done and that the city has no preconceived objections to a zoning change.

“Because the city is both the land owner and the regulator of the land, the city is very much interested in having this move forward with a great amount of acceptance,” Garcia said.