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Magic takes a shot at Hub development

Fund backs project to convert factory to affordable housing

Basketball superstar Earvin ``Magic" Johnson , whose 1980s showdowns with Larry Bird and the Boston Celtics are part of sports lore, is doing his first project in the city in his current career as a redeveloper of urban neighborhoods.

Johnson's Canyon-Johnson Urban Funds has become the majority financier of a project to redevelop an old factory in Charlestown into 146 units of so-called ``workforce" housing -- units the developers said will be priced so middle-income families and workers can afford them.

The condos will sell from under $200,000 at the ``very affordable" level to market-rate units starting in the low-$300,000-range. About 10 percent of the units will be reserved for lower-income buyers who qualify under government affordable housing standards.

``It will bring back sweet memories. It will be just like old times, but we won't be putting on the uniforms," Johnson said yesterday. ``The best basketball I ever played in my life was going up against the Celtics and Larry."

The Canyon-Johnson fund joined Cathartes Private Investments , a Boston-based real estate investment company that has built more than $500 million of property throughout New England and New York, and has several other projects elsewhere in Boston. Canyon-Johnson would not disclose how much the fund is investing in the project, but managing partner Bobby Turner said that it was providing the majority of the financing.

The nearly $1 billion Canyon-Johnson fund specializes in investing in racially diverse urban areas and has worked on projects in Milwaukee, Hollywood, and Miami. Johnson added that he hoped to sign other local deals soon.

``They've got a very similar vision to ours," said Jim Goldenberg , a managing partner at Cathartes . ``They focus on urban housing. They wanted a transit-oriented project, and we thought we shared a lot of the same philosophies."

Next to the Sullivan Square T station on the Orange Line and near Route 93, the 1.9 acre site will become 146 loft-style condos with open floor plans, high ceilings, and parking.

The developers expect to begin construction this fall, and the first units are scheduled to be available in early 2008.

Fifteen of the units fall under the ``affordable" housing category, meaning they will be sold through a lottery to buyers meeting certain income requirements. For example, the ownership income limit for a family of four is $91,784, according to the Boston Redevelopment Authority . The rest will be available to the general public.

``Our job is not regentrification, but we are also not in the low-income business," Turner said. ``What Magic and I believe is that you can make money by marketing to urban-workforce communities. This community has been dramatically overlooked.

Turner said the fund's main criteria for sites are urban density, ethnic diversity, and local demand.

It's not Johnson's first bid for Boston real estate. Canyon-Johnson remains in the running to develop eight acres of city-owned land in Roxbury next to police headquarters, Johnson has scoped out local properties for the past 10 years, and Johnson was involved in failed deal to bring a cinema to a minority neighborhood here.

Johnson's history with Boston stretches back to his storied rivalry with Bird. The pair famously dueled in the NCAA championships in 1979, foreshadowing a decade of legendary clashes on the court. Johnson said the worst time in his life followed his 1984 loss to the Celtics at the NBA championships, and that his best came the following year when he and the Lakers returned the favor.

``He's got incredibly fond memories of Boston; I travel with Magic all over the country and when he gets to Boston, he becomes a different human being. He starts smiling," Turner said.

Kim-Mai Cutler can be reached at kcutler@globe.com.

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