September 16, 2020

Developer Jesse Keyes turns unconventional into bold statement

If there was ever a case of a building perfectly mirroring its developer, it would be One Seventh and Jesse Keyes. Both are angular, ultra-chic, smart and aggressive. Both are also making their emphatic debut on the New York architecture and style worlds.

Built on a 45-degree angle at the juncture of four different streets where Seventh Ave. South meets Varick and Carmine Sts., One Seventh resembles a hulking helm of a slick, futuristic boat or space-age flying machine. Six stories tall with just four units, the corner building shaped in an angular prism has a façade of manganese ironspot brick and Solarban 80 double-paned glass.

The side of the building on Seventh Ave. South that parallels the rush of autos making their way to Tribeca or the Holland Tunnel has bold racing stripes and competing slabs of vertical windows. On the mellower Carmine St., Juliet balconies face the local cafes, old-time Spanish restaurants and bootleg record stores. One Seventh blends seamlessly with its intersection and has gainied total community board support.

"No developer would take a chance on this site, which was operated as a gas station since the 1920s and unused for almost a decade," says Jesse Keyes, 35, an investor in the swank Goldbar and a partner in La Esquina, one of New York's hippest eateries. "They said it was too small or that the shape wouldn't work. I saw it as an opportunity. We took design risks with this project that architects generally do with museums and public spaces."

Designed by Rogers Marvel Architects, the same firm recently awarded the Governors Island commission, One Seventh is allegedly the world's first full-floor triangular residence. To make the project work financially, Keyes' development firm REcappartners worked with zoning attorneys Charles Rizzo & Associates to help get a variance to build higher than the allowed three floors. On top of the building, Keyes built a penthouse duplex with two outdoor terraces, both of which lean toward the corner angle.

"The question we had to answer was, how does one live in a triangle," says Keyes, who plays a hand in every design decision. "When I picture who is going to live here, I see an investment banker with an artist inside or an artist with a lot of money. I see the banker sitting totally naked in a chaise longue at the apex of the 45-degree angle, looking out at the cars driving down Seventh Ave., on the phone with his friends, thinking: 'How am I going to own this town tonight?'"

With hardly any marketing, they have two offers for the four units. One from a banker, the other from the son of a Spanish film producer. Prudential Douglas Elliman's Kevin King, a two-year agent who happens to be the long-time maitre d' at Balthazar, heads up sales. The three 1,371-square-foot, two-bedroom, two-bath apartments are listed for $1,995,000. The 2,106-square-foot, three-floor penthouse with 961 square feet of outdoor space costs $4.45 million.

"We're waiting till the units are completely finished until we formally sell the apartments," says King. "A finished product will show how unique this project is and assure we get what it's worth."

Jesse Keyes comes from both sides of the tracks. His parents were hippies. His mother, a lesbian, split from his father but stayed in Redwood City, Calif., supporting her two children as a gardener. As Jesse puts it, they lived on the "wrong side of the tracks." Ironically, she tended gardens near Jesse's father's estate in Woodside, Calif.

"Mom was a real hippie, and dad was a pseudo-hippie," says Keyes, who was called "Blanquito," or little white boy by his Pueblo Mexican barrio neighbors. "Half the time I was in my poor Mexican 'hood with my mom and the other half with a swimming pool, Mercedes, Porsches and horses with my dad."

Keyes talks openly about his desire but inability to communicate with his Spanish-speaking neighbors. He talks openly about almost everything, especially his drive to never stop learning or moving.

"There's a point where you grow up in suburbia that you say I'm either going to get stuck in this for the rest of my life or do something fascinating or interesting," he says. "I was visiting a friend in Mexico City when I was 17 years old. We were in his family's penthouse and I was looking over the slums of the city, whose people needed major help at the time. I thought to myself, we as capitalists need to do better for these people. It was then that I knew I needed to focus on this for the rest of my life."

For Keyes, that meant Princeton, a year in Spain to learn the language, a Fulbright Fellowship and a master's in architecture in Catalonia, a Kinne Fellowship in the Dominican Republic, a job with the prestigious Boston Consultant Group, a master's in real estate from Columbia University, a doctoral candidacy and teaching fellow at Rutgers University in Urban Planning, and roles in the Gore and Kerry presidential campaigns.

"My father is good friends with Gore from St. Albans," says Keyes, whose great-grandfather on his father's side was Democratic Senator Morris Sheppard from Texas who championed Prohibition and women's rights. "My goal was eventually to work in Housing and Urban Development [HUD]. After those two losses, I planned to teach and research through my 30s. But academia, especially in our current political climate, was not as fulfilling as I thought. Building strong architectural projects is a way to make my mark and some money. Eventually, I will get back into affordable housing and giving back in some way."

Keyes' next project is already a major coup for him and New York. Working with Habita, a Mexican group known globally for designing and operating some of the world's chicest boutique hotels, Keyes will open a Mexican-themed, mixed-use hotel and condo project in a location below Houston St. on the East Side. Mexican architect Enrique Norton, who designed One York on Canal St. in New York and the Guggenheim in Guatemala, is an equity partner in the project.

"I want to make a unique statement and be part of the next big place," says Keyes, whose groomed beard and middle-parted hair give him the look of Al Pacino in "Serpico." "You hope it doesn't become something like what happened in the Meatpacking District, which had little thought and planning and became oversaturated with the same product, bars and restaurants. There should be mixed use there. And the Hotel Gansevoort is a mistake. I don't know how they got that built."

Slightly controlling, obsessive about details, and intellectually strategic, Keyes even wrote the copy for the One Seventh marketing materials. (I haven't met a developer yet who does that.) He prefers to focus on one project at a time as opposed to stretching himself thin and losing touch with the day-to-day decisions that these high-design projects demand.

"Scalability will be hard because for each project I'm looking for a specific art and message," says Keyes. "In any case, when you get bigger you lose control over certain levers, and I don't want that to happen."

Still, according to Thaddeus Briner, the architect for One Seventh, formerly of Rogers Marvel (and I.M. Pei's firm) and now on his own, Keyes is a very good client. "This was a dream project," says Briner. "It combined a really challenging site with an extremely progressive client. Those don't come along very often."