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Photograp[h by Chip Scheuer
ALMOST HEAVEN: Developers Rick Moe (left) and Craig Rowell say their project is ideal: infill with services and access to public transit.

Grave Matters

Neighbors fight a development next to the crematorium

By Jessica Lyons

OCEAN STREET Extension is a dead end—quite literally, for its residents interred at Santa Cruz Memorial Park, catching up on their eternal rest at the mausoleum or awaiting the fiery furnaces at the crematorium.

Not much happens next door, either. On the hillside immediately adjacent to the crematorium is a grassy, 2.74-acre parcel that is vacant except for some deer, coastal live oak and eucalyptus trees.

But spirits are stirring. Developers Rick Moe and Craig Rowell envision the land as a resting place of sorts—but for the still living, with beds and pillows, not coffins. They want to build 40 apartments on the bucolic yet mildly morbid street.

"We were going to call it Dead Man's Curve or Serenity Gardens," jokes Rowell, walking up the grade to show off the view. He adds, more seriously, "You don't really think about the graveyard while you're up here."

The planned project includes 10 buildings, covered parking spaces and a pool. Each apartment, which will rent for about $1,600 to $1,800 a month, will have its own storage unit and a washer and dryer. The slope is steep, so although the one- and two-bedroom units will front Ocean Street Extension, they'll sit high above it, at least 25 feet from the street. Their living areas, kitchens, dining rooms and decks will face southwest. They'll get good light and views of the Mission's steeple, the Metro bus center downtown and tombstones. "Some people will find it disturbing, but we think there are plenty of people who will enjoy the serenity of it," Moe says.

Indeed, the cemetery makes for quiet neighbors. But Moe and Rowell can't say the same for the "pitchfork"-wielding ones farther down the street. Neighbor Ellen Aldridge and several other members of the Ocean Street Extension Neighborhood Association, along with their attorney, attended a city Planning Commission meeting earlier this month and voiced their opposition to the proposed apartments. The land is currently zoned for single-family homes and it should remain that way, Aldridge says.

"It's a very rural road," she says. "Our main argument is that the infrastructure just isn't there to support what the city is planning to do, which is change the General Plan, change the zoning, develop on a 30 percent slope, throw all the building rules out the window and build a high-density development."

At its October meeting, the Planning Commission continued the public hearing to Nov. 7, at which point commissioners will decide whether to greenlight the project and forward it on to the City Council for review.

"There's already no parking on our street—the street's a mess—and it's going to create a bottleneck," Aldridge says.

And then there's the issue of mercury emissions.

Toxins and Traffic

On a chilly October afternoon, Aldridge stands across the street from the crematorium. "See those smoke stacks? See the smoke coming out? Those are dead bodies being burned," she says.

During cremation the deceased—and their dental fillings—incinerate, releasing dangerous toxins into the air and water. This worries Aldridge and an increasing number of environmentalists and neighborhood activists. A few years ago, Richmond residents successfully fought plans to build a crematorium, citing concern about toxic emissions.

"All that exhaust," Aldridge says, "and that all has mercury vapor if the dead person has silver fillings.

"I've made peace being on a street with a cemetery. At first it kinda creeped me out. But this"—she points to the clear vapor rising from the smoke stacks, shimmering like heat waves rising off the road on a hot day—"this is disturbing."

Burning dead people and their fillings doesn't bother Mike Gilroy, deputy director of the Monterey Bay Unified Air Pollution Control District. City planners have recommended a "mitigated negative declaration" for the apartment proposal, which means that the project wouldn't require an full environmental impact report. Gilroy says he doesn't see any need to push for additional environmental review.

"There's a miniscule amount of dental mercury vapor that can be released from dental fillings, and, as the EPA says, they can be released while you're chewing, not just burning in a crematorium," he says. "What our agency commented on, when we reviewed the land-use permit for this project, we commented very specifically that the project should not be allowed to be built with fireplaces or wood-burning devices because pollution from fireplaces is a much greater issue than mercury fillings."

The traffic study submitted by the developers found that the project will generate an estimated 266 daily car trips—25 of these happening during after-work rush hour. Still, it found that the additional traffic wouldn't add sufficient congestion to require any mitigation measures. Regardless, Moe and Rowell plan to add two landscaped islands to improve traffic flow.

Additionally, Santa Cruz City Planner Janice Lumm says planning staff will continue reviewing neighbors' concerns about additional car trips between now and the Nov. 7 meeting.

Back on the property, both developers and neighbors say they're looking out for the community's best interest.

"We've spent most of our development careers trying to build small, modest living spaces," Moe says, citing the duo's Cormorant Court Apartments on Frederick Street and Roosevelt Terrace cottage-style homes, among other developments.

"This is the kind of development the city encourages," Rowell adds. "It's an infill project, with city services. We have sewer. We have water. We have power. We're on the bus line. You can get downtown easily on foot or bike."

Aldridge says she doesn't question Moe and Rowell's developer cred. It's the project that doesn't fit: "Does it belong here?"

The proposed development's next-door neighbors, meanwhile, remain deathly quiet about the project.

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