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New York ‘Architect’ Says He Never Saw Plans for 642 Feet Tall Building

Amid the glittering geometric towers that dot the Manhattan skyline, the hotel on 11th Avenue in Hudson Yards was designed to stand out. At 642 feet tall, the building soars above the Hudson River, featuring jagged sets of floor-to-ceiling windows that shimmer in the sun.

To all outward appearances, Warren L. Schiffman, who is in his mid-80s and retired, was the architect of record on the project. His professional seal and signature were stamped on its design and those of two other large-scale projects in New York City, a hotel near La Guardia Airport and dual high-rise residences in Queens. 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 oversight and involvement of a registered 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 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 chief executive, David Marx, detailing how the company’s design firm, DSM Design Group, could continue to use his seal of approval even though he no longer worked there.

Developers can spend several millions of dollars on architect fees for big projects. In exchange for the use of the seal, however, 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 large developments in New York City, including its highest-profile project to date, the Hudson Yards hotel. It called for Mr. Schiffman to “provide your architectural stamp and signature to the DSM Design Group when requested” and to make “best efforts to respond within 48 hours of any request for such service.”

Mr. Shiffman said in an interview he was never asked to review any building plans.

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

“Oh, my, goodness gracious, that’s a new one,” said Steven Zirinsky, the co-chairman of the Building Codes Committee at the New York chapter of the American Institute of Architects. “Now what’s going to happen with these buildings — who’s watching the store?”

Officials at the city’s Department of Buildings said they did not find any structural defects 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 ultimately approved. The hotel near La Guardia was completed in 2019, while the high-rise residences in Queens have not been approved yet.

The department barred Mr. Schiffman from filing building plans in December, a spokesman said, after it learned that “someone may have fraudulently re-registered him with the state and filed plans without his knowledge.” The spokesman declined to elaborate.

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 agreed to reimburse him for the continuing education courses necessary for renewing it. The contract would be valid as long as “you continue providing your architectural stamp and signature,” it said.

In return, Mr. Schiffman would receive $175,000 in payments over more than a decade — $50,000 through the end of 2016 and then $12,500 annually until 2027, distributed in quarterly payments, according to the document, which has also been obtained by state investigators.

That arrangement imploded last month.

As part of an investigation by the state’s Department of Education, which oversees professional licensing, Mr. Schiffman admitted that he had 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 “permitting, aiding or abetting an unlicensed person to perform activities requiring a license.”

The Department of Education Board of Regents accepted 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 had admitted to state investigators that he had practiced the profession when he was not authorized to do so.

He also denied that he had an agreement with Marx Development Group, though he later acknowledged in the same interview that he had the contract in his possession, read aloud several lines from it and conceded he still received payments from the developer.

“Yeah, 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 applicants to complete 36 hours of courses before they can be renewed. Mr. Schiffman said he had renewed his license after he retired, but also said he had never taken the courses and that he had been corresponding for months with the state agency about surrendering his license.

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

Mr. 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 companies, including a construction firm 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 firm owned by Mr. Marx, Atria Builders, 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 over their projects, city records show.

In the world of architecture, a professional seal is tantamount to a sworn oath 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’s 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 seal of the group’s senior architect, that practice is not done without the senior architect’s knowledge and supervision.

And while architects draft the 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 oversight too. The Department of Buildings reviews construction plans before work begins to make sure they adhere to local building codes and zoning rules.

State licensing rules warn architects that it would be “unprofessional conduct” to affix their seal to documents that they had not created or “thoroughly” reviewed. And it could be considered a Class E felony if a licensed professional helped “an unlicensed person to practice a profession” or tried to “fraudulently sell” a license, the state says.

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

In one of the most prominent cases, a building designer near Albany, N.Y., Paul J. Newman, was accused of practicing architecture without a license, drafting building plans over many years for buildings including residential homes, a community for older residents and a jeweler’s store. He served about two years in state prison and was released in 2019.

In that case, charges were brought by the New York State attorney general’s office, which labeled 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 the nonexistent Vandelay Industries.

The attorney general’s office said it did not have an active investigation into the case involving Mr. Schiffman, and it was unclear whether the Department of Education referred its 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 centers, including a $30 million facility that opened in 2012 in Brooklyn, which is owned by the company controlled by Mr. Marx.

Mr. Schiffman said he left behind several projects that he had designed but were not complete when he retired in 2016, but that they did not 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 started to appear on new building filings 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 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 return a request for comment.

At the beginning of 2019, Mr. Schiffman’s seal was stamped on a diagram of Marx Development Group’s 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 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, city lobbying records show. Since 2021, Mr. Marx’s company has paid $113,000 to the group for its lobbying efforts at 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 block from a nursing center owned by the same developer.

Mr. Schiffman said he was baffled as to how someone could have used his seal, which he said has been at his home on Long Island since he retired. Nowadays, however, an architect’s seal and signature can be applied digitally.

Susan C. Beachy contributed research.

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