News reporters swarmed around NBA star turned developer Earvin “Magic” Johnson Tuesday as he joined Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee and City Council member Brenda Stardig for a ceremonial grand "reopening" of the Marq*E Entertainment Center at I-10 and Silber.
It's been that kind of Houston trip for Magic. The night before at the Hotel Icon, a doting crowd listened as Johnson talked about his company investing $450 million in Texas — and his not-all-sweet H-Town memories.
"I’ve had some of my greatest moments here in Houston and also some of my toughest moments here," Johnson said. "You know Ralph Sampson broke my heart when he hit that shot."
That shot is Sampson's twirling jumper at the buzzer in Game 5 of the 1986 Western Conference Finals, of course. The shot that the 7-foot-4 Sampson had to catch and fling in one motion to beat the clock, the shot that knocked the Magic's Showtime Lakers out of the playoffs. The shot actually happened in LA, but hey he's Magic. He knows which story to bring out for the Houston crowd. Icons don't obsess over details.
One of the greatest players in NBA history, Magic became known for his ever-flashing smile almost as much as his no-look, behind-the-back passes. He still carries that natural star power today — whether he's talking Sampson or a real estate renaissance.
Known for years as one of the city’s less savory shopping and entertainment complexes, the Marq*E recently completed a $15 million renovation directed by Fidelis Realty Advisors and the Canyon-Johnson Urban Fund, a private real estate enterprise dedicated to redeveloping urban properties in ethnically-diverse communities. Canyon-Johnson is a joint venture between Canyon Capital Realty Advisors and Magic.
"I’ve had some of my greatest moments here in Houston and also some of my toughest moments here," Magic said.
The Marq*E is one of two Canyon-Johnson holdings in Houston. The second, the Hotel Icon, was purchased earlier this year by the fund, which celebrated the rebranding of the 135-room historic property as a Marriott’s Autograph Collection hotel at the Monday night party. The Icon is the first Marriott Autograph (which is geared to be a boutique brand) in Texas.
“Projects like this are going to bring America back,” Johnson said before a tour of the revamped Marq *E, which faced serious setbacks after the 2008 collapse of its financial backer Bear Stearns. “It took five years for the renovations to finally happen, but they did and they created jobs.”
The first phase of construction brought additional retail space to the west side of the Marq*E. The recently-completed second phase demolished the central building and moved its former tenants — the popular club Drink Houston and the IMPROV Comedy Club — to other prime locations in the complex.
“The street of dreams, as the corridor was once known, turned into an avenue of nightmares,” Bobby Turner said.
The center’s famously eerie interior corridor is now open on one side, increasing visibility for stores facing I-10 and diminishing the security issues the Marq*E faced after a fatal shooting in 2006, just months before Canyon-Johnson purchased the center.
“The street of dreams, as the corridor was once known, turned into an avenue of nightmares,” said Bobby Turner, managing partner for Canyon Capital Realty Advisors and the financial half of Johnson’s real estate fund. “It’s wonderful to put the disaster of 2006 behind us.”
“With the Marq*E, we’re investing in people,” Johnson said during the tour. “I’ve always believed in the community here, even after the murder. I think the people in the area should have shopping and entertainment options like anyone else.”
“The project proves that District A is a great place to invest, even in a downed economy,” Stardig said. “I have to hand it to Johnson-Canyon and Fidelis. Most people would sit on a property like this, but they committed to it.”
Jackson Lee shared her thoughts on the new renovations, before continuing on her two-day job creation tour of Houston. (She also mentioned that she'd be making a quick trip to Tranquility Park to thank the Occupy Houston protestors.)
“I saw Dave Chappelle at the old IMPROV years ago and, let me tell you, it was quite a different place then,” Jackson Lee told CultureMap. “This is a welcome improvement to the Marq*E. It’s a working-class mall with affordable entertainment and we’re glad to see it succeed.”
“Demographics are changing in this neighborhood,” Jackson Lee said, referring to the spate of new construction in the area, “but with the federal stimulus money I helped secure to expand this portion of I-10, all types of Houstonians will have easy access to the Marq*E.”
Magic left the Marq*E to head to Austin, where the Canyon-Johnson group is the primary investor in the W Hotel, the gleaming property that experienced those mysterious instances of falling glass. His trip to Houston consisted of an overnight stay in his new hotel — an icon sleeping in the Icon.
"If anyone can bring the magic to (the Icon), it's me," Johnson joked in his remarks at the hotel party.
Watch the Rockets moment that still haunts Magic: