Neptune Society’s Apollo Crematory will begin winding down operations at its Emeryville Horton Street facility and begin its move to East Oakland after a protracted legal fight. The move was initially planned five years ago but was stalled by East Oakland community efforts and an emergency ordinance shepherded by Oakland Councilmember Larry Reid. An Alameda Superior Court has sided with Apollo’s parent company Stewart Enterprises, Inc and the amended planning code to require a major conditional use permit has been rescinded.
The unmarked, corrugated metal building at 4080 Horton between Park and 40th has operated in Emeryville since the 80’s when our city was more of an industrial enclave. In the last two decades, Emeryville has gone in a more residential direction including development of the adjacent Bayside Park retirement community and nearby Icon at Park Apartments. At the facility’s peak of operation, it was said to be among the busiest in the state cremating up to 3,000 bodies per year.
The actual incineration of bodies at the site ceased years ago and the twin smokestacks that once protruded from the facility have been disassembled. The location now primarily serves as a warehouse and actual cremations take place in Colma. The ashes are then transported back to Emeryville where they are stored for family pick-up or delivery.
Efforts in 2006 to move their operations to Richmond were thwarted by community efforts leading Stewart Enterprises to pursue the East Oakland site. Stewart originally received an “Authority to Construct” the crematorium from Bay Area Air Quality Management District back in November 2011.
Advocates branded the 6,100 square foot industrial building a “Mega” crematorium and cited concerns of mercury exposure to neighbors from the incineration of dental fillings. Most of the pollution fear is based on emissions from silver amalgam fillings which is vaporized during the cremation process. The use of silver amalgam in fillings has declined steadily since the 1970s and the mercury emitted from them is said to be a tiny fraction compared to that emitted from coal fired plants.
Under community pressure, The City of Oakland passed an emergency ordinance and amended their planning code to require the additional permitting. The Oakland Planning Commission denied an appeal by Stewart by a 3 to 2 vote. Apollo argued that the pollution fears were unfounded and that offering convenience to families to observe the cremation of their loved ones was a community benefit.
Former SF Gate columnist Chip Johnson called out Oakland Councilmember Larry Reid for fueling the hysteria in this 2014 piece noting the health risks that were used to stall the move “didn’t hold to logic or common sense”.
After a four year legal battle with the City of Oakland, an appeals court ruled in favor of Stewart as detailed in this Oakland City Planning Commission staff report.
“Stewart Enterprises successfully won in court and the Planning Commission rescinded the denial of the developer’s appeal of the city’s decision to require a Conditional Use Permit” according to Oakland Development Planning Manager Robert Merkamp. Merkamp noted that Stewart has since re-applied for these permits with the city and they were finalized this year. The legal decision is limited to Stewart, and any applicant wishing to construct a new crematorium would need to apply for and receive the Major Conditional Use Permit that the PC amended.
Plans for the soon to be vacated Emeryville building have not been discussed but any new development will be subject to height limits and architectural guidelines defined in The Park Avenue District Plan.
Cremation has gone in a more “green” direction as of late with the advent of Alkaline Hydrolysis AKA “Bio Cremation,” Bio Cremation is said to be a gentle, eco-friendly alternative to flame-based cremation or casket burials. It is a quiet process that uses water and potassium hydroxide to reduce the body to its basic elements of bone ash. The process is currently illegal in California.
Neither Oakland Councilmember Larry Reid or Neptune Society spokesperson Margaret Hambrick responded to comment despite several inquiries.