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Builder-Activist Nathan Shapell Is Driven to Develop Some Big Ideas

February 12, 1989|GABE FUENTES | Times Staff Writer

BEVERLY HILLS — As a developer and as chairman of the Little Hoover Commission, a public watchdog agency, Nathan Shapell has forged a reputation as a take-charge guy. Several years ago, during a commission meeting, Shapell told a federal education official that California's schools were a mismanaged mess.

"They could turn it over to me and I could run it," said Shapell, a millionaire Beverly Hills developer. "You go back to Washington and tell Ed Meese that Nate Shapell says we've got to clean up this mess."

Even by Shapell's standards, he has plenty to keep him busy these days. Shapell, 69, is the man behind an ambitious $2-billion proposal to develop 1,300 acres in the Porter Ranch area of Chatsworth. The rolling hills just north of the Simi Valley Freeway were purchased in the late 1970s from California Federal Savings & Loan by Shapell's Beverly Hills company, Shapell Industries, and by Liberty Building Co. of Beverly Hills.

3,000 Homes Planned

Shapell's company owns 75% of Porter Ranch Development Corp., which last month announced plans to develop 3,000 homes and 7.7 million square feet of office and retail space on the site over the next 30 years.

But his plan is still only in the idea stage. The first public hearing on the proposal is scheduled for later this month. Northwest San Fernando Valley residents and merchants have already voiced concern about the proposal. "Our major concern at this point is the traffic because that's a phenomenal project in size and scope," said David R. Miller, president of the Granada Hills Chamber of Commerce. "There's also a concern that a complex that size would ruin the small-business community in Granada Hills and Chatsworth."

Porter Ranch Development representatives have maintained that the fast-growing West Valley needs the additional housing and can accommodate the proposed 1.5-million-square-foot regional shopping center.

If Shapell pulls it off, it would be one of the biggest land developments in the history of Los Angeles County. But Shapell has overcome long odds before.

"He is a hard-driving person," said Richard C. Mahan, a vice president of Shapell Industries. "He wouldn't be alive today if he wasn't a hard-driving person."

Shapell is a survivor of the notorious World War II death camp at Auschwitz. After the war, Shapell worked in Germany finding housing for displaced people in the community of Munchberg. In the 1950s he and his brother David and brother-in-law Max Webb moved to the United States and settled in California, convinced that its real estate market offered plenty of growth. After a few years they began their own real estate development company.

Privately owned Shapell Industries did about $400 million in sales last year and employs 425 people, Mahan said. Shapell continues to run things as chairman and president.

Shapell is no stranger to large projects. Among his 30 or so developments in California is the former MGM Ranch in Thousand Oaks, where Shapell is building more than 1,400 homes and a 102-acre industrial park.

Shapell also is building the 860-acre planned community of Eastlake Village in Yorba Linda and the 600 luxury home community of Kite Hill in Laguna Niguel. Shapell and builder Jona Goldrich are partners in the $60-million Promenade Towers, a 510-unit apartment project in downtown Los Angeles.

Shaped Character

Shapell's experience in Europe during and after the war helped shape his management style of tempered ruthlessness, associates said. One former Shapell employee, who asked that his name not be used, left Shapell Industries after several years because of the pressure. "There were some very bright people who couldn't take it," he said.

But the other side of Shapell is the community activist, the giver to charities, the crusading chairman of the Little Hoover Commission. "That's the humane side of him, or the feeling that he owes it to society," the former employee said.

Panel Investigations

Under Shapell's chairmanship since 1975, the Little Hoover Commission has conducted about 75 inquiries attacking mismanagement or waste in agencies ranging from local school districts to the state Department of Social Services. And last year Shapell Industries made charitable contributions of more than $1 million, Mahan said.

Shapell, a Pole who changed his name from Natan Schapelski, has written "Witness to the Truth," a 1974 book about his experience as a prisoner at Auschwitz and as a postwar leader of Jewish Holocaust survivors in Munchberg.

In the book, Shapell wrote that Webb and several others at Auschwitz saved his life. One day guards were calling out names and serial numbers of those in Shapell's unit to be transported from the camp, and he hid in the lavatory. Later, Webb and others bamboozled the guards so that they stopped looking for him.

"To my knowledge, I was the only one lucky enough to escape like this, and to all of those men I owe a debt," Shapell wrote.

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