Amid the shimmering geometric towers that dot the Manhattan skyline, the 11th Avenue hotel at Hudson Yards was designed to stand out. At 642 feet tall, the building soars above the Hudson River, with jagged sets of floor-to-ceiling windows that glisten in the sunlight.
By all outward appearances, Warren L. Schiffman, about 80 years old and retired, was the official architect of the project. His professional seal and signature have been affixed to his design and those of two other large-scale projects in New York, a hotel near La Guardia Airport and two high-rise residences in Queens. All share the same developer, Marx Development Group.
But Mr Schiffman said he had played no active role in these projects, a statement which raises questions about whether the buildings were approved for construction without the supervision and involvement of a licensed architect – a requirement in New York State to ensure that buildings are properly designed and do not pose a safety risk.
A document obtained by The New York Times shows Mr Schiffman’s credentials were used to fake his endorsement of building designs 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 chief executive, David Marx, detailing how design firm DSM Design Group could continue to use its stamp of approval even though he no longer worked there.
Developers can spend several million dollars in architect fees for large projects. In return for using the seal, however, Mr. Schiffman received quarterly payments from the promoter that were significantly below standard.
The contract was signed just before the Marx Development Group embarked on three major developments in New York, including its highest-profile project to date, the Hudson Yards Hotel. He called on Mr. Schiffman to “provide your architectural stamp and signature to the DSM Design Group upon request” and to “do his best to respond within 48 hours of any service request.”
Mr. Shiffman said in an interview that he was never asked to review construction plans.
Building professionals in New York said the allegations involving Mr Schiffman were highly unusual.
“Oh, my God, this is new,” said Steven Zirinsky, co-chair of the building codes committee for the New York chapter of the American Institute of Architects. “Now what will happen with these buildings – who watches the store?”
City building department officials said they found no structural flaws in the plans for the Hudson Yards hotel, which is still under construction. Department records show that 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 high-rise residences in Queens have yet to be approved.
The department barred Mr. Schiffman from filing construction plans in December, a spokesperson said, after learning that ‘someone may have fraudulently re-registered him with the state and filed plans without him knowing”. The spokesperson declined to give further details.
An addendum to Mr. Schiffman’s agreement with Mr. Marx, which they both signed in June 2016, required Mr. Schiffman to “maintain his professional license in good standing for the foreseeable future.” In the contract, Mr. Schiffman’s former employer undertook to reimburse him for the continuing education courses necessary for his renewal. The contract would be valid as long as “you continue to provide your architectural stamp and signature”, he said.
In return, Mr. Schiffman would receive $175,000 in payments over more than a decade — $50,000 until the end of 2016, then $12,500 a year until 2027, split into quarterly payments, according to the document. which was also obtained by state investigators.
That arrangement imploded last month.
As part of a state Department of Education investigation, which oversees professional licensing, Mr Schiffman admitted he practiced architecture when he was not licensed to do so. Under state law, the “unauthorized practice” of architecture may include practicing without a license or “authorizing, aiding, or abetting an unauthorized person to perform any activity requiring a license.”
The Department of Education’s Board of Regents agreed to Mr. Schiffman’s forfeiture of his license at a meeting in May.
In an interview with The Times, Mr Schiffman said he gave up his license because of his age and denied admitting to state investigators that he practiced the profession when he was not not allowed to do so.
He also denied having entered into 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 of it and admitted that he received always payments from the developer.
“Yes, I still get quarterly payments,” Mr. Schiffman said. “He owed me money for years.”
Architecture licenses are valid for three years in New York State and require candidates to complete 36 hours of coursework before can be renewed. Mr. Schiffman said he renewed his license after retiring, but also said he never took the classes and had been corresponding for months with the state agency about surrender of his license.
“I quit practicing five years ago, and if anyone says I was, they’re lying through their teeth,” Mr. Schiffman said.
Mr. Marx did not return numerous calls and emails seeking comment. He’s been a developer for over 30 years, according to his biography onlineand owns several other businesses, including a construction company and the design company that employed Mr. Schiffman.
Marx Development Group has developed over four million square feet of real estate, including a Marriott Courtyard hotel in Midtown Manhattan. And the construction company owned by Mr. Marx, Earpiece manufacturers, has built more than 40 projects, according to the companies’ websites. Mr. Marx’s companies have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in recent years lobbying city officials about their plans, according to city records.
In the world of architecture, a professional seal equates to an oath sworn by the architect that the work meets the highest professional standards of safety and integrity. The Office of the Professions, a division of the state Department of Education that oversees licensed professions, likens it to “giving expert testimony in court.”
While it is not uncommon for junior architects in firms to work on projects that ultimately bear the seal of the group’s senior architect, this practice is not done without the knowledge and supervision of the senior architect. .
And while architects draft the designs, other licensed professionals, such as engineers, are also involved to ensure buildings are structurally sound. In New York, there is also another level of surveillance. The Department of Buildings review building plans before work begins to ensure they meet local building codes and zoning regulations.
State licensing rules warn architects that it would be “unprofessional conduct” to affix their seal to documents that they had not created or examined “in depth”. And it could be considered a Class E crime if a licensed professional helped “an unlicensed person to practice a profession” or attempted to “fraudulently sell” a license, says the state.
Chartered architects and other licensed building professionals are sometimes accused of wrongdoing.
In one of the most prominent cases, a building designer near Albany, NY, Paul J. Newman, was accused of practicing architecture without a license, drafting building plans for many years for buildings including residences, a community for elderly residents and a jeweler. shop. He served about two years in state prison and was released in 2019.
In this case, charges were laid by the New York State Attorney General’s office, which referred to the case as “Operation Vandelay Industries”, a tongue-in-cheek reference to “Seinfeld” character George Costanza. who posed as an architect and invented a job at Vandelay Industries, which does not exist.
The attorney general’s office said it had not actively investigated the case involving Mr. Schiffman and it was unclear whether the Department of Education had referred his case to prosecutors.
Throughout his 50-year career, Mr. Schiffman has worked on numerous projects in New York and across the country, many for the Marx Development Group, including Mr. Marx’s own home on Long Island. He has also designed nursing homes, including a $30 million facility opened in 2012 in Brooklyn, which is owned by the company controlled by Mr. Marx.
Mr Schiffman said he left behind several projects he designed but were not completed when he retired in 2016, but they did not include the Hudson Yards Hotel or the Queens Buildings.
But in the years since his retirement, his name and stamp of approval began to appear on new construction records in New York.
The first dates back to October 2018 for the Manhattan hotel, when Mr. Schiffman’s signature appeared on a record filed with the City Buildings Department. It reappeared as recently as June 2020, on a document details the external dimensions of the hotel.
The hotel, which is expected to be a Marriott Aloft property, is still under construction, and workers have recently begun installing exterior windows again. A Marriott spokeswoman did not return a request for comment.
In early 2019, Mr. Schiffman’s seal was affixed to a design of the Marx Development Group hotel near La Guardia, a six-story building with 126 rooms. It is currently being transformed into a homeless shelter.
In response to community backlash against the shelter, a company controlled by Mr. Marx, LGA Hospitality, hired the influential lobbying firm Capalino & Company to help the developer receive a certificate of occupancy from the city, according to city lobbying records. Since 2021, Mr. Marx’s company has paid $113,000 to the group for its lobbying efforts on this 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 close to a nursing care center belonging to the same promoter.
Mr. Schiffman said he was puzzled as to how anyone could have used his seal, which he said has been at his home on Long Island since his retirement. Nowadays, however, an architect’s seal and signature can be affixed digitally.
Susan C. Beachy contributed research.