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Casinos pique Magic's interest

Former basketball star Earvin 'Magic' Johnson (left, with former hockey player Mark Messier in New York) will be in Charlestown today to promote a condo project he is developing. The prospect of casinos in the state has his attention as well. Former basketball star Earvin "Magic" Johnson (left, with former hockey player Mark Messier in New York) will be in Charlestown today to promote a condo project he is developing. The prospect of casinos in the state has his attention as well. (ED BETZ/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Could a Magic Johnson casino be on Boston's horizon?

The Los Angeles Lakers legend said in an interview yesterday that he'd be interested in getting involved in a casino development here if the right deal came along. That might help alleviate his frustration over a decade of efforts to develop major projects here with only minimal results.

"I would definitely look at entertainment, a casino in Boston, and putting people to work," he said. "A lot of times casinos go into cities and there isn't any minority participation," Johnson said.

The Hall of Famer will be in Charlestown today showing off the Mezzo Design Lofts, a $54 million, 146-unit condominium building near the Sullivan Square MBTA stop.

His Canyon Johnson Urban Fund is a partner in the development, now half-done, with Boston-based Cathartes Private Investments. The project was conceived as "workforce housing" for Boston commuters and with model units ready to show, Johnson is coming to town to help spur interest.

Johnson's interest in being a Boston developer has been frustrated for years. Given the chance, Johnson said, he'd like to do more projects here and would have done so already had he not been rebuffed.

Many of Johnson's real estate projects are in minority neighborhoods. Last year, Canyon Johnson proposed a $250 million, seven-building development for an eight-acre site across from Boston Police headquarters in Roxbury. The Boston Redevelopment Authority awarded the deal to another developer earlier this year.

Johnson also wanted to build a movie theater in Roxbury as part of a larger development years ago, but he said he was dropped from the project by its developer.

"I've been down this road in Boston for about 10 years now. I was kind of disappointed because I thought it would have created jobs," he said.

Johnson didn't elaborate on his interest in a casino, but Canyon Johnson managing partner Bobby Turner said any deal would not include the fund, which focuses on retail and housing.

The roughly $1 billion fund, a partnership between Johnson and Canyon Capital Realty Advisors, has developed projects in Brooklyn, Los Angeles, Baltimore, Houston, Miami, Milwaukee, Washington, D.C., San Diego, and Atlanta.

And like other potential casino developers, Johnson would have to wait until the Legislature decides whether to approve such facilities in the state.

Past frustrations aside, Johnson's Charlestown condominiums will come to fruition. Jim Goldberg, a partner at Cathartes Private Investments, Canyon Johnson's partner in the Mezzo project, said the first units could be occupied by December. But he acknowledged that tighter lending standards for borrowers could make the condos a tougher sell than initially expected.

"You can't ignore the subprime effects on the housing market and the effects of mortgage tightening on borrowers, but we like the project and we think that our price range is a really good one," Goldberg said.

Most Mezzo condos are priced between $300,000 and the high $600,000s, but 15 will be sold as "affordable" units priced at $182,000. Buyers must meet income restrictions to qualify for those units, Goldberg said, though he wasn't aware of the details.

The development will include an 8,000-square-foot courtyard and a parking garage that Goldberg said would shield residents from noisy Sullivan Square subway trains.

Its one-, two-, and three-bedroom condos will range in size from 600 square feet to 1,500 square feet.

Keith Reed can be reached at reed@globe.com.

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