Plight of the Wronged Architect

By Brian J Pape, AIA, LEED-AP

The 51-story hotel tower at 410 Eleventh Avenue has recently restarted construction after the developer mis-used his architect’s seal. Credit: Brian Pape, AI

Former DSM Design Group architect Warren L Schiffman, 86, of Oyster Bay NY said he did not play an active role in designing an under-construction hotel at 450 11th Avenue. Yet, Schiffman’s seal of approval appears on the construction documents of Marx Development Group’s (MDG) 51-story hotel in Hudson Yards.

Founded in 1999 as an in-house architect for MDG, the DSM Design Group is owned by developer David E. Marx. The hotel structure has been in the works since 2016, but movement on it has been slow. Schiffman retired in 2016 before 450 Eleventh Avenue’s construction was approved, although it is unclear whether Schiffman had a hand in concept plans.

A document obtained by The New York Times indicated that Schiffman’s credentials were used to fake his approval of building designs that he did not review. The document was an agreement outlining how DSM Design Group could continue to use Schiffman’s professional seal after he retired. Schiffman was to receive quarterly payments from the developer that would only total $175,000 over 10 years. The contract called for 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.” This would only be legal if Schiffman had full authority to review and amend the documents.

The contract was signed just before MDG began three projects, including the Hudson Yards hotel. One of the projects was for a 126-room hotel near LaGuardia Airport that was completed in 2019 and is now being converted to a shelter for the homeless. Plans for the third project, a pair of high-rise apartment buildings in Queens, had not been approved in 2022.

David E. Marx, Owner and Chief Executive Officer of MDG, is an attorney and a real estate developer in New York City. The MDG website states it is a multi-disciplinary, vertically integrated, real estate development company. The DSM Design Group is a “team of in-house architects, engineers, and designers (who) channel their industry expertise towards creative methods and add value thru (sic) exemplary design for our portfolio projects. We custom tailor spaces using design as a medium to reflect our corporate vision of design excellence. We highly regard on creating a designed atmosphere for our built environment and not just generating buildings.”

Schiffman says he was never asked to review any plans and 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. “Yeah, I still get quarterly payments,” Schiffman told the Times in a 2022 interview in which he first denied having an agreement with Marx, then subsequently read aloud from his contract with them. “He owed me money for years,” he said by way of an explanation.

In Sep. 2019, the Architect’s Newspaper reported the “Teeter-Totter -Tower” was set to rise directly across from the Javits Center between West 36th and West 37th Street, so-called because the vertical facade twisted and undulated as it rose. The site still just being excavated. It was to house a 531-room hotel for Marriott International.

Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide, Inc., one of the largest companies that owned, operated, franchised and managed hotel properties, was acquired by Marriott International in 2016. David Marx’s MDG secured a $202 million refinancing for its Hudson Yards hotel in 2019. Then in 2021, Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide in Hudson Yards, rebranded it as an 487-foot-tall, 531-room Aloft Hotel to be occupied around the middle of 2024. Then since December 2021, the Aloft Hotel was to be a 642-foot-tall skyscraper with 379 guest rooms.

The Real Deal reported in December 2021, the Department of Buildings (DOB) learned Schiffman may have been fraudulently re-registered with the state of NY and banned Schiffman from filing building plans. Then in May 2022, Schiffman admitted during a Department of Education (DOE) investigation that he practiced architecture while unauthorized, which can mean he allowed his license to be used improperly. Under state law, the “unauthorized practice” of architecture can include practicing without a license or helping someone who is not licensed — by, for example, “permitting, aiding or abetting an unlicensed person to perform activities requiring a license.” Schiffman then forfeited his license, claiming it was done because of his age.

Officials at New York City’s DOB said they did not find any structural defects in the plans for the Hudson Yards hotel. Department records show that it reviewed the plans five times between 2018 and 2020, when they were approved.

Atria Builders is the general contractor for the project. Atria Builders was established in 1999 and continues to be owned by David Marx. Other co-owned entities by Marx include Boulevard Assisted Living Community and Boulevard Home Care Associates, Manhattan Regional Center, Endeavor Hospitality Group, Majestic Care, and the federally regulated HUD mortgage lender, Rockhall Funding. While the nursing homes are leased to New York State Certified Nursing Home Operators, the assisted living facilities are operated by a Marx management company. Each of these types of development is financed by HUD through Mr. Marx’s mortgage lending company.

So, in 2022 the project was delayed, work stopped, stemming from the project’s lack of an authentic seal of approval from a registered and practicing architect. In recent months, Marx has removed Schiffman’s name from several projects, replacing him with another licensed professional.
When construction restarted in May 2023, the 379 guest rooms are to be joined by a business center, a ballroom, and a fourth-floor restaurant with a bar and outdoor terrace. Window installation, as of this writing, continues, but it now has subtly angled glass panels mounted on a virtually straight vertical facade. The final design is now by DSM Design Group and Moshe Tzur Architects.

The attorney general’s office is not reported to be investigating Schiffman. The Real Deal stated in June 2022 that it is unclear whether the matter has been referred to prosecutors, and no recent news reports have been found.

This is a case of major fraud; why don’t we hear of some prosecutions, not just one architect losing his license?