Amidst the twinkling geometric towers that dot the Manhattan skyline, the hotel on 11th Avenue in Hudson Yards is designed to stand out. At 642 feet, the building rises above the Hudson River, featuring jagged clusters of floor-to-ceiling windows that shimmer in the sun.
For all outward appearances, Warren L. Schiffman, who was in his mid-80s and retired, was the record architect on the project. His professional seal and signature have been stamped on his design and signature of two other large-scale projects in New York City, a hotel near LaGuardia Airport and high-rise twin residences in Queens. They all share the same developer, Marx Development Group.
But Mr. Schiffman said he had not had an active role in those projects, a statement that raises questions about whether buildings were approved for construction without the oversight and participation of a registered architect – a requirement in New York State to ensure buildings are designed correctly and do not pose a safety 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 had not reviewed.
The document, a four-page contract addressed to Mr. Schiffman on company paper, shows that when Mr. Schiffman retired in 2016 from Marks Development Group, he signed an eight-point agreement with its CEO, David Marks, detailing how the company operates. The design company, DSM Design Group, can continue to use his seal of approval even though he is no longer operating there.
Developers can spend several million dollars on architect fees for large projects. In exchange for using the seal, Mr. Schiffman received quarterly payments from the developer that were significantly lower than usual.
The contract was signed before Marks Developments Group embarked on three major development projects in New York City, including its most famous project to date, the Hudson Yards Hotel. Mr. Schiffman called for “providing your architectural stamp and signature to DSM Design Group upon request” and making “best efforts to respond within 48 hours of any request for such service.”
Mr. Schiffman said in an interview that he was never asked to review any building plans.
New York City construction specialists said the allegations regarding Mr. Schiffman were highly unusual.
“Oh, my gosh, oh my, this is new,” said Stephen Zirinsky, co-chair of the Building Codes Committee at the New York Chapter of the American Institute of Architects. “Now what will happen to these buildings – who is watching the store?”
City building management officials said they found no structural flaws in plans for the Hudson Yards Hotel, which is still under construction. Department records show that it revised the plans five times between 2018 and 2020, when they were eventually approved. The hotel near LaGuardia was completed in 2019, while high-rise housing in Queens has yet to be approved.
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A department spokesperson said the department prevented Mr. Schiffman from submitting building plans in December, after learning that “someone had fraudulently re-registered with the state and submitted plans without his knowledge”. The spokesman declined to go into details.
An addendum to Mr. Schiffman’s agreement with Mr. Marks, which they both signed in June 2016, requires Mr. Schiffman “to maintain his professional license in good standing for the foreseeable future”. In the contract, Mr. Schiffman’s previous employer agreed to reimburse him for continuing education courses needed to renew him. The contract will be valid as long as you “continue to provide your architectural stamp and signature”.
In return, Mr. Schiffman will receive $175,000 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.
This arrangement exploded last month.
As part of an investigation by the state Department of Education, which oversees professional licensing, Mr. Schiffman admitted that he practiced architecture when he was not authorized to do so. Under state law, the “unauthorized practice” of architecture can include practicing without a license or “allowing, aiding, or abetting an unauthorized person to perform activities that require a license.”
The Department of Education’s Board of Trustees approved 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 that he admitted to government investigators that he practiced when he was not authorized to do so.
He also denied that he had an agreement with the Marx Development Group, although he later admitted in the same interview that he owned the contract, reading aloud several lines from it and acknowledging that he was still receiving payments from the developer.
“Yes, I still get paid quarterly,” Schiffman said. “He owed me money for years.”
Architecture licenses are valid for three years in New York State and require applicants to complete 36 hours of courses before they can be renewed. Mr. Schiffman said he renewed his license after he retired, but also said he had never attended the courses and had been in communication for months with the state agency about relinquishing his license.
“I stopped exercising five years ago, and if someone says I am, they are lying through their teeth,” said Mr. Schiffman.
Mr. Marks did not respond to numerous calls and emails seeking comment. He’s been a developer for more than 30 years, according to his online bio, and owns several other businesses, including a construction firm and design firm that hired Mr. Schiffman.
Marks Developments Group has developed more than four million square feet of real estate, including the Marriott Courtyard in Midtown Manhattan. Mr. Marks’ construction company, Atria Builders, has also built more than 40 projects, according to the companies’ websites. City records show that Mr. Marx’s companies have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in recent years to lobby city officials about their projects.
In the world of architecture, a professional seal is an architect’s oath that work meets the highest professional standards of safety and integrity. The Bureau of Professions, a division of the state Department of Education that oversees licensed professions, likens the office 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 group’s senior architect’s stamp, this practice does not take place without the knowledge and oversight of the chief architect.
While engineers draft designs, other licensed professionals, such as engineers, are also involved to ensure buildings are structurally sound. In New York City, there is another layer of censorship, too. The Buildings Department reviews building plans before work begins to ensure they comply with local building codes and zoning rules.
State licensing rules warn architects that it would be “unprofessional” to put their stamp on documents they did not create or review “thoroughly”. The state says it can be considered a Class E felony if a licensed professional assists an “unlicensed person in the exercise of a profession” or attempts to “fraudulently sell the license.”
Registered architects and other licensed building professionals are sometimes accused of wrongdoing.
In one of the most notable cases, the designer of buildings near Albany, New York, Paul J. Newman, was accused of practicing architecture without a license, drafting construction plans over many years for buildings including apartment homes, a community of older residents and a jeweler’s shop. He spent about two years in state prison and was released in 2019.
In this case, charges were brought by the New York State Attorney’s Office, which called the case “Operation Vandelay Industries,” a tongue-in-cheek reference to George Costanza, the “Seinfeld” character who pretended to be an architect and invented a job at non-existent Vandelay Industries.
The attorney general’s office said it did not have an active investigation into the case involving Mr. Schiffman, and it was not clear whether the Department of Education had referred its case to the prosecution.
Throughout his 50-year career, Mr. Schiffman has worked on numerous projects in New York City and across the country, many for the Marks Development Group, including Mr. Marks’ home on Long Island. He has also designed nursing centers, including a $30 million facility that opened in 2012 in Brooklyn, which is owned by the company Mr. Marks controls.
Mr. Schiffman said he left behind many of the 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 after his retirement, his name and seal of approval began to appear on filings 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 as recently as June 2020, on a document detailing the hotel’s external dimensions.
The hotel, expected to be a Marriott Aloft hotel, is still under construction, and workers recently reinstalled the exterior windows. A Marriott spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment.
At the beginning of 2019, Mr. Schiffman’s seal was stamped on a sketch 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 the community’s backlash against the shelter, a company controlled by Mr. Marks, LGA Hospitality, has hired influential lobbying firm Capalino & Company to help the developer obtain a certificate of occupancy from the city, according to city lobbyist records. Since 2021, Mr. Marks’ company has paid $113,000 to the group for lobbying efforts at that location.
Last summer, Mr. Schiffman’s name appeared on documents for another Marx Development Group project, contiguous apartment towers in the Flushing district of Queens. They will be around the block from a nursing center owned by the same developer.
Mr. Schiffman said he was baffled as to how someone would use his seal, which he said had been at his Long Island home since his retirement. Nowadays, the architect’s seal and signature can be applied digitally.
Susan C. Beachy contributed research.