ATLANTA-Earvin Johnson, a former Los Angeles Lakers basketball star, is returning to town–not on the hardwood court but as a financial backer of one of the largest condo-retail projects started in the metro area this year.

Johnson is managing director of Beverly Hills, CA-based Canyon-Johnson Urban Fund, a special purpose, closed-end real estate fund that has partnered on other urban infill neighborhood development projects with prominent national players such as Loews Cineplex Entertainment, Starbucks Coffee Co., TGI Friday’s Restaurants and Washington Mutual.

Locally, Canyon-Johnson Urban Fund and Corus Bankshares Inc. of Chicago are financing the construction of the $103-million Plaza Midtown which has just broken ground on a premium 3.3-acre, full city-block site that runs from Eighth Street to Peachtree Place, between Springs and West Peachtree streets in Midtown.

Daniel Corp. of Birmingham, AL and locally based Selig Enterprises Inc. are the developers. GlobeSt.com first reported their plans on Sept. 8. Plaza Midtown will comprise two 20-story towers housing 452 condominium residences, 70,000-sf of ground-floor retail and six levels of parking for 600 vehicles.

The condos are expected to sell for $180,000 to $400,000, Midtown condo brokers dealing in comparable projects tell GlobeSt.com. The retail component, anchored by a Publix Supermarket, is slated to open in September 2005. GlobeSt.com previously disclosed Publix as the planned anchor for the project.

The Canyon-Johnson Urban Fund is providing a mezzanine loan of $12.5 million. Corus Bank is committed for a $61.2-million construction loan, as previously reported.

In a prepared statement, Johnson says “the Plaza Midtown is a prime example of the type of urban fill development that we are trying to promote…and will bring about even further revitalization to the already vibrant Midtown Atlanta community.”

Canyon-Johnson Urban Fund is managed by Canyon-Johnson Realty Advisors LLC whose partner is Johnson Development Corp. “Canyon Capital Realty Advisors LLC and Johnson Development Corp. came together because we both recognized the tremendous opportunity that exists in urban neighborhoods today and the synergies between our two sets of urban experiences,” says K. Bobby Turner, a co-managing partner of the fund.

Daniel Corp. paid $9 million, or $2.7 million per acre, for the 3.3-acre Midtown site, as GlobeSt.com previously reported. At $62.61 per sf, the dirt is one of the most expensive parcels in Midtown, according to area land brokers.

The parcel is just north of the Novare-Wood site at West Peachtree and Alexander streets where locally based Novare Group and Wood Partners Inc. have broken ground on an estimated $100-million, 29-story, 406-unit condo-office, mixed-use community. That project sits on another prime two-acre site at Center City in the affluent Buckhead district.

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