Bringing Magic to Baltimore

NBA legend's urban development fund aims to bring quality to a city neighborhood


Former hoops superstar Earvin "Magic" Johnson, whose dazzling playmaking earned him a spot in the NBA Hall of Fame, is bringing his latest game to Baltimore: Deal-making.

Targeting projects in urban communities, Johnson's investment fund has put up most of the equity for Village Commons, a development that will bring 170 condominiums, stores, restaurants and parking structures to Charles Village.

Johnson, who will be on hand for today's groundbreaking, said yesterday that urban neighborhoods crave coffeehouses, movie theaters and the kind of quality housing typically found in suburbs. And he's serious about bringing those things to Baltimore's less trendy communities.

"We feel Baltimore needs and wants more quality," he said. "We plan on spending a lot of money in Baltimore."

After his retirement from basketball, Johnson teamed with Baltimore native Bobby Turner to create Canyon-Johnson Urban Fund, pouring millions of dollars into efforts to build condos and shopping plazas in cities including Los Angeles, Atlanta, Cleveland and Miami.

He has also established partnerships with such national corporations as Starbucks, Loews Cineplex and T.G.I. Friday's to bring those brands into urban environments -- including a movie theater in Prince George's County.

Johnson has been quoted saying he makes more money these days in real estate than he does from basketball endorsements and appearances.

But he also says it's not only about the money.

"They want the best and Starbucks is the best," he said of bringing the purveyor of $4 lattes into minority markets. "That's what people in urban America want."

Village Commons, which will be in the heart of Charles Village near the Johns Hopkins University, is not exactly the neediest of Baltimore's neighborhoods. But Canyon-Johnson isn't looking for low-income projects, Turner said.

Density and diversity are what he and Johnson are after, where they think they'll get the biggest bang for the buck and be able to make the most impact.

Turner calls that his "double bottom line," a safe investment with a social conscience.

Charles Village, he and Johnson agree, is only Canyon-Johnson's first investment in Baltimore. The city, they feel, is ripe with double bottom line opportunities.

Parts of town they're looking closely at include East Baltimore, Mondawin Mall, Reisterstown Road Plaza and spots near Coppin State University.

Turner, who graduated from Pikesville High and took SAT classes a block from where Village Commons is rising, said, "I've got a great sense of loyalty to where I grew up."

While other investors might spurn the lower-income East Baltimore for wealthy Green Spring Valley, Turner said that's a mistake. And, he added, retailers like Target and Home Depot who've mined nearly every worthy suburban space are considering cities the next frontier.

"The density of people," he said, "more than makes up for the lack of per capita income."

Canyon-Johnson, a venture between Johnson and California-based Canyon Capital Reality Advisors, has invested $14 million in Village Commons, a $150 million project led by local developer C. William Struever.

The partners expect the first phase of Village Commons to open next fall. Along both sides of the 3200 block of St. Paul St. will ultimately be 68 lofts and 100 condos for sale and about 32,000 square feet of ground-floor retail space, which the team says will probably include restaurants, clothing stores and neighborhood merchants.

Before today's groundbreaking, Johnson is scheduled to visit Barclay Elementary-Middle School, where Canyon-Johnson and Struever are replacing the windows. The fund's social mission complements Struever's oft-documented contributions on behalf of the city.

"Our agenda is to demonstrate to the community it's not just about making money," Turner said.

A key to that, he added, is Johnson, Canyon-Johnson's "ambassador of good will." With his famous smile and household name, Johnson can "bridge that gap of distrust between a community and a developer," Turner said.

The basketball star is relishing the opportunity to take that role on in Baltimore.

"I'm definitely serious" about Baltimore, Johnson said. "With all that's going on in the city, the rebirth and everything, we feel really good about the investment we're making."

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.