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Gramercy Power Couple's Noisy Geothermal Well Project Infuriates Neighbors

By Amy Zimmer | September 11, 2014 8:41am
 Gramercy Park residents are outraged by noise and potential safety issues around the renovations at 23 Gramercy Park South.
Renovations at 23 Gramercy Park South
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GRAMERCY PARK — Residents of an exclusive Gramercy Park enclave are up in arms after their neighbors — Lauren Santo Domingo, a New York socialite and Vogue contributing editor, and her Colombian billionaire beer heir husband Andres Santo Domingo — began digging a geothermal well beneath their townhouse.

A massive drill for the Santo Domingos' well began pounding on Monday, rendering the gated Gramercy Park "uninhabitable" because of the noise, residents said. Construction staging has dangerously pushed pedestrians from the sidewalk out into the street and trucks for the project have crashed into three street trees, destroying them, residents said. 

"Everybody is furious. It's a complete disregard for the neighbors," said Pamela Vassil, who has lived on the north side of the park for 40 years and can hear the drilling even though her apartment faces the back of her building.

"The Empire State Building was built in 11 months. This has been going on for four stinking years," she noted of the entire project.

Lauren Santo Domingo — who's been called "the next Brooke Astor" and co-founded Moda Operandi, a fashion site where members can order looks from the runway before they hit stores — bought the 23 Gramercy Park townhouse with her husband for $18.5 million in 2010 and have yet to move in. She and her husband, the youngest son of deceased magnate Julio Mario Santo Domingo, soon began massive renovations that included adding a swimming pool.

That work was noisy and disruptive too, but residents kept quiet about their concerns until this week, when ear-splitting construction began on the geothermal well, which will be about 1,500 feet deep and will take about five weeks to dig, according to Department of Conservation officials and neighbors who said they had seen the plans.

Geothermal wells, which need to be deep enough into the earth's crust to tap energy to heat and cool the building, are considered eco-friendly since they reduce carbon footprints. They also allow buildings to be powered without being connected to the grid, which appeals to residents in a post-Hurricane Sandy New York. There are more than 100 geothermal wells across the city, according to The New York Times.

The Department of Conservation, the state agency that issues permits for such projects, said they've only issued three other permits for geothermal wells across the five boroughs in the past five years: for a hospital, a church and another family residence.

Gramercy is no stranger to big renovation projects, like the Gramercy Park Hotel and the top-to-bottom overhaul of 18 Gramercy Park South. Scaffolding currently encases several buildings around the park.

But the Santo Domingos' building has showed a new level of disrespect for the community, many residents said.

"We've never had as many phone calls and emails and people stopping us on the street to complain about a construction project as this one," said Arlene Harrison, president of the Gramercy Park Block Association, who is known as the "Mayor of Gramercy Park." "People are telling me they're unable to use the park due to the drilling noise."

Tony Hume, a representative for the townhouse, told DNAinfo he was not immediately authorized to speak about the project.

Sean Brady, who lives next door to the construction at 24 Gramercy Park South, called the noise "deafening."

"The drill is something you seen in the [James Dean] movie "Giant," like for a small oil well. It's like a big piece of equipment you'd use wildcatting on Gramercy Park hoping to strike it rich if you weren't already rich," Brady said. "It's taken over the whole neighborhood."

Officials from the Department of Environmental Protection said the agency received five noise complaints on Tuesday and they expected to send an inspector Wednesday to take noise readings.

Beyond the noise, Gary Baddeley, president of the co-op board next door, was most concerned about potential dangers caused by the project's removal of the sidewalk, which forces pedestrians to cross the middle of the street — or simply walk alongside the construction barriers in the narrow lane used for traffic. 

Residents said they have seen trucks mounting the sidewalk to avoid pedestrians who are forced to walk in the street.

Since the street changes — all of which have permits from the Department of Transportation, according to city officials — trucks have hit three nearly 40-year-old street trees, residents said. The Parks Department removed two damaged trees already, officials said, and residents said they were told a third tree will be chopped down soon.

Baddeley said that while he's sad about the trees, he is even more concerned about his 11- and 13-year-old kids darting into the street without being able to see oncoming traffic.

"It's a shame, and we love those trees, but it's not the same as a human life," Baddeley said.