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The Men of La Mancha : Sam Bachner and Marvin Levine Build Mini-Malls for Your Convenience. They Don't Understand Why You Think Their Creations Are So Ugly.

September 28, 1986|JUDY PASTERNAK | Judy Pasternak is a Times staff writer.

The pod-mall kings had been out quite late. So before leaving their respective homes for work this morn ing, they had forgotten to call each other for a consultation on the day's attire. Now they are slightly embarrassed. They have arrived at their Brentwood office in nearly identical outfits. It happens when they don't check first.

Sam Bachner, the 51-year-old president of La Mancha Development Co., and Marvin Levine, the 51-year-old executive vice president, are both wearing light-blue dress shirts. They are both wearing solid red ties. Both are wearing Italian white loafers, the same brand and style. Both have set aside dark, double-breasted blazers for the day's formal moments.

Neither is wearing socks.

"We look like we're wearing uniforms. We're in costume," Bachner says, abashed. Levine stares at his friend and partner. "You wore gray pants," he says in a mock-accusatory voice. Levine's slacks are white linen.

Sam Bachner and Marvin Levine have the same taste in clothes, and in nearly everything else. They like the same movies. They both like exotic locales; they took their wives to Shanghai together and plan to visit Tahiti. They both like deli breakfasts and eat them regularly with the same circle of longtime pals.

Do they always agree? "Yes," says Bachner. "Ninety percent," Levine says. "The other 10% Sam talks me into."

Perhaps all this reinforcement is the reason for their genuine surprise at the increasingly vocal and angry reaction to the projects of which they are so proud: pod malls--also known as mini-malls or convenience centers, the term preferred by Bachner and Levine. These are the ubiquitous stucco buildings, rectangular or L-shaped, that house five to 15 shops on a small corner lot, with parking spaces out front so shoppers can wheel in quickly from the street and dash in and out.

As more and more of them spring up--about 5,000 pod malls have been constructed in California--almost every new center is greeted by protests from the neighbors and derision from the architectural establishment. Although the malls have already transformed the Southern California landscape, Los Angeles has passed an ordinance requiring outdoor lighting, exterior foliage and more parking than the city's usual standard. Culver City has enacted a similar measure.

The men of La Mancha have heard all the usual complaints about convenience centers: They cause traffic congestion. They don't have enough parking. They all have a frozen yogurt store and a video store and a 7-Eleven and, really, how many of those do we need? Most of all, though, the pod malls are ugly. Ugly .

Bachner and Levine get defensive in the face of such criticism. They concede that they are making a fortune from pod malls but they say the centers also have a social value. They say their creations provide easy access to shopping for two-worker families with limited time. And they say their developments give breaks to immigrants who can't get spaces to rent in large suburban malls without a track record in retailing. Many of the small stores opened by Asians and Latinos have blossomed into pod-mall chains.

"We're a little bit of Americana, if you ask me," Bachner says. "We're a little bit of opportunity."

They are particularly galled by the charge that pod malls are eyesores. Bachner and Levine would rather describe the buildings as utilitarian. They say they work hard to make their developments attractive.

Attractive, of course, is in the eye of the beholder. But it's difficult to doubt their sincerity while watching Bachner gaze fondly at a streamlined, two-story pod mall. Built of white tile and blue stucco about 18 months ago, the center stands at Ventura Boulevard and Stern Avenue in Sherman Oaks. "You should see it at night," Bachner says. "It's beautiful all lit up."

It was Bachner, Levine and their late partner, Alan Riseman, who first started building the pod malls in great quantities more than a decade ago, usually on corners where neighborhood gas stations had been abandoned--victims of the '70s energy crunch--or where free-standing grocery stores had closed--victims of rising rents in dense urban communities.

Rivals, impressed by the low cost and high return on investment, have started their own pod-mall fiefdoms. But La Mancha, with 333 centers constructed and 64 under way, is the biggest in the state and, the partners claim, in the nation.

The firm has built centers in Illinois, Missouri, Kansas and Arizona, but in recent years, it has focused exclusively on its home base, California--especially on Southern California, where it has built about 300.

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