Native plant gardens rev up Austin City Hall

Overlooking Lady Bird Lake and backing up to the tall codominiums of downtown, Austin City Hall delights me every time I drive by. With an angular, contemporary exterior clad in copper and limestone and a front facade that steps down toward the lake, the building has a warmth and openness and a playful vibe that’s so in tune with Austin’s style.

The landscaping too is appealing and very “Austin.” No boring lawn, no traditional shrubbery here. Instead, a bounty of native evergreens, perennials, grasses, and trees fills raised beds, rooftop gardens, and pocket gardens situated around the building.

A limestone plaza in front of the building provides a gathering space and sense of openness in lieu of lawn.

A roof garden adds greenery at the upper windows. At plaza-level, bald cypress and horsetail planted along a boulder-lined rill and pool evoke a Hill Country stream.

Sadly, the water feature is dry and dead, having been turned off for the last several years due to mandatory water-use restrictions. I feel the current ban on most outdoor water features in Austin is wrong, depriving our city of a source of beauty that’s particularly essential in a hot climate. I fully support water conservation efforts, but you can’t convince me that turning off all the fountains in town does much to save our lake water. I could go on, but I’ll save that rant for another post.

A huge swath of inland sea oats adorns this raised bed.

How many other cities care to make their City Hall landscapes as a Certified Wildlife Habitat? (Many, I hope!)

A pocket garden on the west side of the building contains a sun- and heat-loving mix of Texas mountain laurel, four-nerve daisy, prickly pear, yucca, and Mexican feathergrass.

The sign explains that water used in irrigation and the (dead) water feature is recycled from the air conditioning system.

A bloom spike from a Texas sotol pierced the shade arbor above and now leans like a tiki umbrella pole.

These agaves are massive — about 7 feet tall.

A tiered seating area to the right of the entrance is often the site of live musical performances. I cropped out a homeless person sleeping on the steps — sadly, a common sight in Austin. That’s ‘Tangerine Beauty’ crossvine growing atop the wall.

The view from the top of the step seating. Shade structures like this are essential in our hot, sunny climate.

White mistflower spills over the edge of another rooftop garden.

A closer view — I wish I could share the spicy fragrance with you.

On the upper terrace, my daughter and I posed for a reflected self-portrait. There’s the state bird of Texas in the background — a crane. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist that old joke.)

Cantilevered over 2nd Street on the back side of City Hall, “the stinger,” also called the armadillo tail, points north. Strolling beneath it on this weekend were visitors to Austin Fan Fest, part of the Formula One U.S. Grand Prix event.

We attended Fan Fest to hear a band my husband is into, Civil Twilight, which was playing a free live show just a block away. I’m not into F1 racing, but any excuse for live music in downtown Austin, right?

All material © 2006-2013 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

11 Responses

  1. Austin has really come into its own over the years. We were last there about 28 years ago. Would love to see the city again, lots of changes.

    We moved here in 1994, Janet, and the changes since then have been remarkable. A lot of old-timers complain, but aside from the terrible traffic I like the new Austin. It still has the same laid-back, friendly, creative spirit, and that’s the only thing that really matters. —Pam

  2. While I like the plantings around City Hall I must. Say I LOVE the reflected portrait of you and your daughter.

    We had fun with that, Loree. The roof garden was her favorite part of the building. —Pam

  3. Steve says:

    Keep Austin WEIRD!! ;)

    Right on, Steve. —Pam

  4. Ann says:

    I was just reading the Plant Delights November newsletter and found out Ruth Bancroft of the famous California cactus garden fame turned 105 on Sept 5 this year! Imagine!

    Gardening is good for your health!

    That’s amazing. Thanks for letting me know, Ann. I was wondering if she was still with us after seeing her garden last summer. —Pam

  5. Jenn says:

    Crane! There’s a few of us outsiders that haven’t heard that one yet. When I graduated from high school in ’81 it was the big boom down there, I’m betting there were tons of cranes!

    Rumor had it there were skyscrapers being erected on dirt roads…???

    No kidding? I wasn’t in Texas then, Jenn. When I arrived in Houston in 1985 for college, Texas was experiencing a bust. Almost all the shops in the Rice Village were boarded up, and things looked kind of sad. A few years after I graduated in 1989 I went back and was amazed to see how vibrant that area had become. Boom and bust — that’s long been the pattern in Texas. But as long as we’ve been in Austin — nearly 20 years — it’s been mostly boom. —Pam

  6. Your city hall is so modern – LOVE IT. Also…the planting are so sensible. Thanks for sharing :)

    The building itself is so cool. It’s one of my favorites downtown. And the native gardens are the icing on the cake. —Pam

  7. ricki says:

    Beautifully integrated building and plantings. You must be proud.

  8. Robin Mayfield says:

    Pam, I agree with you about the public fountains. I miss seeing the waterfalls at the airport – since it was designed originally to be a waterfall, the simple rock wall that remains is boring and not a good tribute to visitors to our city. Same with city hall – in fact, it is almost contradictory for them to turn that off since it was designed to reuse gray water. And I liked the seeping wall of water from the same system that you see as you walk up from the parking garage below city hall. Important features that should be kept, imho. Our city hall is one of the few in the country that is Leed Certified and solar powered, and the water usage was part of that design.

    Nice post!

    • Pam/Digging says:

      Thanks, Robin, for pointing out that City Hall’s water feature reuses gray water. It’s not a water-waster. The loss of the airport water feature is very sad too. —Pam

  9. Mike in Austin says:

    Pam, I love your blog and have mostly been a lurker.

    I also agree about the public fountains. While it may seem unseemly to be in a drought with running water fountains, “conserving” the little water that is lost through evaporation is a false sense of concern.

    The city provides a significant number of building and use permits without concern for when we “run out” of water.

    The “state bird” is a great juxtaposition in regards to the problem. More condos or buildings. More housing, more water consumption.

    We are all asked by the LCRA to conserve water and maybe even capture water when we shower, while they approve 8700 new housing permits just in Lakeway.

    Sorry for the rant. I love your blog and it is so inspirational. Thanks so much for what you do.

    • Pam/Digging says:

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts about the public fountains, Mike. I agree completely. There’s plenty to think about with regard to water consumption in Austin. —Pam