When San Antonio architect Cotton Estes and her partner Mike Long purchased almost half an acre of land less than a mile from the Alamo in 2021, the site was an abandoned bus transfer station.

For decades, bus drivers pulled their giant motorcoaches in and out of the six bays, loading, unloading, spewing exhaust and compacting the asphalt driveways. In addition to pavement aplenty, the surrounding “yard” hosted uninvited patches of Bermuda grass, dandelions, KR Bluestem and Chinese henbit.

2021: The Space Station. –Photo courtesy Cotton Estes

TODAY: Blue grama grass going to seed in front of the Space Station in downtown San Antonio. –Photo courtesy Cotton Estes

Three years later, Estes and Long are enabling a stunning transformation.

Recast as the “Space Station,” the former bus station has been rebooted as work spaces that house two tenants, Long’s custom home building workshop, and Estes’ architecture studio.

Each space features automatic metal slatted garage-style doors on opposite walls, allowing those inside to adjust the sunlight and breezes gracing the room. The studios look onto what Estes affectionately described as a “prairie cloud,” stands of native grasses wafting in the wind.

Estes’ urban prairie thrives not far from the Alamo with San Antonio’s downtown in the distance. –Photo by Monika Maeckle

Blue Grama, Lindheimer’s Muhly, Little Bluestem, and Sideoats Grama thrive in the former parking lot. A generous row of bluebonnets runs through the middle of the urban prairie, and occasional Mexican hats–Prairie coneflowers–peek through the savanna.

“Several people told us, ‘You guys are insane,'” said Estes, a soft-spoken Rhode Island native who moved to Texas in 2012 to work for Lake Flato architects, an award-winning firm known for its progressive outdoor ethos. Since 2018, she’s been running her own show.

While at Lake Flato, she worked on a project with Piet Oudolf, the famous Dutch garden designer of New York City’s Highline. That’s when she developed a deep appreciation for grasses and their ecosystem functionality of restoring soil and sequestering carbons–habitat chores that her asphalt-heavy property failed miserably to undertake.

A median of bluebonnets run through the savanna at Estes’ Space Station. –Photo courtesy Cotton Estes

Located in the historic Dignowity Hill district on San Antonio’s East side, the tall grasses of Estes’ prairie require a three-year cycle in order to seed and reproduce.  This long-stemmed look is not the typical landscape option in an historic district.

But as a professional architect, Estes prepared a Design & Concept document that includes an implementation plan and drawings that communicate her intentionality. She’s made it available to anyone who asks and has found the community and officials relatively understanding.

“Soil” at Estes’ Space Station. –Photo courtesy Cotton Estes

“So far, so good,” she said, offering that the no one has complained about her long haired grasses, nor do they mind the butterflies and birds that are visiting the yard with increasing frequency.

The couple’s first chore was asphalt removal–a daunting task of breaking up and carting off 5,600 square feet of concrete slab and asphalt.

About 2,000 square feet of that total was hidden just below a thin layer of dirt and Bermuda grass. It took days of jackhammering and dumpster filling to create a soil palette friendly enough to plant three Live Oak trees. When digging the holes for the trees, Estes and Long discovered yet another asphalt bed about three feet down, which they decided to leave intact.

Then the couple imported 400 cubic yards of hardwood mulch to cover the future prairie with a nine-inch layer of organic matter so as to kill undesirable plants and seeds as well as help build the soil. Several 18-wheelers delivered the 120 tons of mulch, which weighs an average 600 pounds per cubic yard.

“When the mulch arrived, it towered over the rooftop like a mountain,” Estes recalled.

Mike Long and Cotton Estes. –Photo courtesy Cotton Estes

Luckily, Long is well versed in large machines and was able to assist with Bobcat lessons to spread the material, as well as raking sessions.”When we were done, we just lay down on the mulch and took a deep breath,” she recalled.

The lush grassland has had its setbacks. At one point, a big die-off occurred, and after consulting San Antonio grass expert Kelly Lyons, Estes realized they’d been underwatering. Estes and Long addressed the issue by installing strategic irrigation and the grasses “bounced back big time.”

Lyons  lauded the project, labeling it a testament to the value of our native grasses.

“These plants are beautiful and tough but also provide wildlife habitat and feed many animals up the food chain, to include butterfly larva, beetles, and earthworms,” said Lyons, who teaches biology at Trinity University.

Lee Marlowe, president of San Antonio’s Native Plant Society of Texas chapter, was also impressed with the Space Station.

“It’s great to see such care, patience and energy put into this native garden transformation,” she said. “Prairies used to cover much of San Antonio, but there is very little remaining and this landscape helps bring back some of what was lost.”

Following the irrigation installation, Estes was relieved when the prairie recovered. “We were so happy when something living came out of the ground,” she recalled. “I thought for sure we were going to fail at this experiment.”

Most gardeners and landscapers focus on colorful flowers and beauty over utility. What motivated Estes’ strong commitment to grasses?

“Prairies are very endangered, almost extinct, so I thought it would be interesting to reintroduce them to a very challenging site,” she explained.

One hundred twenty tons of mulch, nine inches thick, were spread at the property. –Photo courtesy Cotton Estes

She pointed out that prairies work as hard as trees in combating urban heat island effects. “We were looking for something that takes on a life of its own, bold and resilient and adding diversity.”

More flowering species will join the bluebonnet patch once the primary grass lands are well established.

In the meantime, Estes’ ambitious vision is being realized. “It’s a process, not an end product, and I really hope we can inspire others.”

TOP PHOTO: Cotton Estes pulls weeds at her prairie restoration project at the Space Station in downtown San Antonio. –Photo courtesy Cotton Estes

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