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[whitespace] Montalvo artists' cottages gain unanimous approval

Saratoga--Artists realize that any great work takes time. It's no wonder then that Villa Montalvo officials have been patiently waiting nearly two years before finally bringing their finished product to Saratoga's Planning Commission.

Montalvo had its day on July 28, when the commission unanimously approved a use permit and design specs for the estate to build 10 cutting-edge cottages for its Artist in Residency program, as well as a new commons building to go along with them.

Commissioners used words like "inventive" and "impressive" to describe the plans for the cottages, which have all been designed by five architect/artist teams to achieve ideal working spaces for the artists who will visit Montalvo in coming years.

"I'm impressed with the thought and care that has gone into the project," commissioner Margaret Patrick said. "The project is very well thought out, and I don't object to any part of it."

Montalvo's plans met very little opposition at the hearing. One neighbor expressed concern about the visibility of the cottages from below, as well as the need for Montalvo to increase the number of concerts it holds to help pay for the $4 million project.

Montalvo Executive Director Elisbeth Challener said that so far $2.5 million has been raised specifically for the cottages, and that her staff hopes to complete the entire fundraising drive by the end of this year.

"We're feeling very good about where we are at this point. One of the things Villa Montalvo has done is that we've learned from our mistakes with neighbors," Challener said, adding that employees have spent much time holding meetings with neighbors.

Montalvo officials also had a showing of its plans, displaying blueprint drawings and models for weeks at no charge to the public in its own art gallery.

"We're under court regulations on concerts," she said. "We can't have any more. We have a very capable development department that will continue our fundraising efforts. ... Hopefully, the neighborhood is aware of the project and aware of what the vision is."

Called "Orchard of Artists," Montalvo's new cottages have been specifically designed for artists studying and working on site in their respective fields, including music, visual arts and writing.

Five teams of architects and artists teamed up to design the cottages, including architect Jim Jennings, sculptor Richard Serra and Nobel Laureate poet Czeslaw Milosz, who together have designed one of the writer's buildings.

The buildings, ranging from about 500 to 900 square feet, are architecturally interesting, yet simple. A focus of the project is to use sustainable building practices and include environment-friendly lighting, cooling and heating techniques.

The teams focused on sensitive landscaping practices as well, and in at least one case will build footpaths and steps out of bricks made from stones and soil directly from the site.

The entire cottage project has also undergone a lengthy environmental review, as it is encroaching on about 3/4 of an acre of densely foliated riparian habitat.

One major oak tree, listed by a city arborist as in "fair" condition, will be removed to make way for the commons building. Montalvo will have to pay about $8,000 for the loss of that tree and to help pay for more trees.

Additionally, there was some concern over the possible presence of a threatened species of frog, but according to four separate studies done on the site, the California red-legged frog has not been seen there. Montalvo will perform another study a week before construction is set to begin next spring just to make sure.
Steve Enders

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