New York architect says he never saw plans for 642-foot-tall building

Amidst the shimmering geometric towers that dot the Manhattan skyline, the hotel on 11th Avenue at Hudson Yards was designed to stand out. Standing 642 feet tall, the building towers over the Hudson River and features irregular sets of floor-to-ceiling windows that sparkle in the sun.

To all appearances, Warren L. Schiffman, who is in his 80s and retired, was the architect of record on the project. His professional stamp and signature were stamped on his design and those of two other large-scale projects in New York City, a hotel near LaGuardia Airport and high-rise double residences in Queens. They all share the same developer, Marx Development Group.

But Mr. Schiffman said he had no active role in those projects, a statement that raises questions about whether the buildings were approved for construction without the supervision and involvement of a registered architect, a requirement in New York state to ensure that the buildings are designed correctly. and do not represent a security risk.

A document obtained by The New York Times shows that Mr. Schiffman’s credentials were used to falsify his approval of building designs that he did not review.

The document, a four-page contract addressed to Mr. Schiffman on company letterhead, shows that when Mr. Schiffman retired in 2016 from Marx Development Group, he signed an eight-point agreement with its CEO, David Marx, that details how the company’s design firm, DSM Design Group, could continue to use its seal of approval even though it no longer worked there.

Developers can spend several million dollars in architect fees for large projects. However, in exchange for the use of the seal, Mr. Schiffman received quarterly payments from the developer that were substantially lower than the norm.

The contract was signed just before the Marx Development Group embarked on three major developments in New York City, including its most high-profile project to date, the Hudson Yards hotel. He requested Mr. Schiffman to “provide his architectural stamp and signature to DSM Design Group upon request” and to make “best efforts to respond within 48 hours of any request for such service.”

Shiffman said in an interview that he was never asked to review any construction plans.

Construction professionals in New York City said the allegations involving Mr. Schiffman were highly unusual.

“Oh my gosh, that’s new,” said Steven Zirinsky, co-chair of the Building Codes Committee at the New York chapter of the American Institute of Architects. “Now, what is going to happen to these buildings? Who is looking at the store?

Officials with the city’s Department of Buildings said they found no structural flaws in the plans for the Hudson Yards hotel, which is still under construction. Department records show it reviewed the plans five times between 2018 and 2020, when they were finally approved. The hotel near La Guardia was completed in 2019, while the high-rise residences in Queens have yet to be approved.

The department barred Mr. Schiffman from submitting construction plans in December, a spokesman said, after learning “someone may have fraudulently re-registered him with the state and submitted plans without his knowledge.” The spokesman declined to give further details.

An addendum to Mr. Schiffman’s agreement with Mr. Marx, which the two signed in June 2016, required Mr. Schiffman to “keep his professional license in good standing for the foreseeable future.” In the contract, Mr. Schiffman’s previous employer agreed to reimburse him for the continuing education courses necessary to renew him. The contract would be valid as long as he “continues to provide his architectural stamp and his signature,” he said.

In return, Schiffman would receive $175,000 in payments over more than a decade: $50,000 through the end of 2016 and then $12,500 annually through 2027, spread out in quarterly payments, according to the document, which was also obtained by state investigators.

That arrangement imploded last month.

As part of an investigation by the state Department of Education, which oversees professional licensing, Mr. Schiffman admitted that he had practiced architecture when he was not licensed to do so. Under state law, the “unlicensed practice” of architecture can include practicing without a license or “allowing, aiding, or abetting an unlicensed person to engage in activities that require a license.”

The Department of Education’s Board of Regents agreed to seize Mr. Schiffman’s license at a meeting in May.

In an interview with The Times, Schiffman said he relinquished his license because of his age and denied admitting to state investigators that he had practiced when he was not authorized to do so.

He also denied having an agreement with Marx Development Group, although he later acknowledged in the same interview that he had the contract in his possession, read aloud several lines and admitted that he was still receiving payments from the developer.

“Yes, I still get quarterly payments,” Schiffman said. “He owed me money for years.”

Architectural licenses are valid for three years in New York State and require applicants to complete 36 hours of coursework before they can be renewed. Mr. Schiffman said that he had renewed his license after he retired, but also said that he had never taken the courses and that he had been corresponding for months with the state agency about giving him his license.

“I stopped practicing five years ago, and if anyone says I did, they are lying through and through,” Mr. Schiffman said.

Marx did not return numerous calls and emails seeking comment. He has been a developer for more than 30 years, according to his online biography, and owns several other businesses, including a construction company and the design firm that employed Mr. Schiffman.

Marx Development Group has developed more than four million square feet of real estate, including a Marriott Courtyard hotel in Midtown Manhattan. And the construction company owned by Marx, Atria Builders, has built more than 40 projects, according to the companies’ websites. Marx companies have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in recent years lobbying city officials about their projects, city records show.

In the world of architecture, a professional seal is equivalent to an oath by the architect that the work meets the highest professional standards of safety and integrity. The Bureau of Professions, a division of the state education department that oversees licensed professions, likens it to “giving expert testimony in a court of law.”

While it is not uncommon for lower-level architects in firms to work on projects that ultimately bear the stamp of the lead architect in the group, that practice is not done without the knowledge and supervision of the lead architect.

And while architects draft designs, other licensed professionals, like engineers, are also involved to ensure buildings are structurally sound. In New York City, there is another layer of oversight as well. The Buildings Department reviews construction plans before work begins to ensure they comply with local building codes and zoning regulations.

State licensing rules warn architects that it would be “unprofessional conduct” to put their seal on documents they haven’t created or “thoroughly” reviewed. And it could be considered a Class E felony if a licensed professional assisted “an unlicensed person in practicing a profession” or tried to “fraudulently sell” a license, the state says.

Registered architects and other licensed construction professionals are occasionally accused of wrongdoing.

In one of the most high-profile cases, a building designer near Albany, New York, Paul J. Newman, was charged with practicing architecture without a license, drafting construction plans over many years for buildings that included residential homes, a community for older residents and a jewelry store. Store. He served nearly two years in state prison and was released in 2019.

In that case, the charges were brought by the New York state attorney general’s office, which labeled the case “Operation Vandelay Industries,” an ironic reference to George Costanza, the “Seinfeld” character who posed as an architect. and invented a job at the non-existent Vandelay Industries.

The attorney general’s office said it did not have an active investigation into Mr. Schiffman’s case, and it was unclear whether the Department of Education referred his case to prosecutors.

Throughout his 50-year career, Mr. Schiffman worked on numerous projects in New York City and across the country, many for the Marx Development Group, including Mr. Marx’s own home on Long Island. He also designed nursing facilities, including a $30 million facility that opened in 2012 in Brooklyn, owned by the company controlled by Marx.

Schiffman said he left behind several projects he had designed but weren’t complete when he retired in 2016, but they didn’t include the Hudson Yards hotel or the Queens buildings.

But in the years after he said he had retired, his name and stamp of approval began appearing on records for new buildings in New York City.

The first was in October 2018 for the hotel in Manhattan, when Mr. Schiffman’s signature appeared on a record filed with the city’s Department of Buildings. It appeared again in June 2020, in a document detailing the exterior dimensions of the hotel.

The hotel, expected to be a Marriott Aloft property, is still under construction and workers recently restarted installing the exterior windows. A Marriott spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment.

In early 2019, Schiffman’s seal was affixed to a diagram of the Marx Development Group hotel near La Guardia, a six-story building with 126 rooms. It is now being converted into a homeless shelter.

In response to community backlash against the shelter, a Marx-controlled company, LGA Hospitality, hired influential lobbying firm Capalino & Company to help the developer receive a certificate of occupancy from the city, records show. of city lobbying. Since 2021, Mr. Marx’s company has paid $113,000 to the group for its lobbying efforts on that site.

Last summer, Mr. Schiffman’s name appeared on documents for another Marx Development Group project, side-by-side residential towers in the Flushing area of ​​Queens. They would be around the corner from a nursing facility owned by the same developer.

Mr. Schiffman said he was puzzled how anyone could have used his stamp, which he said has been in his Long Island home since he retired. Today, however, an architect’s stamp and signature can be applied digitally.

Susan C. Beachy contributed research.

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