No More Big, Gray Boxes: Rethinking Airport Parking Garages

Wilson Rayfield, AIA, LEED AP

Wilson Rayfield, AIA, LEED AP

While much of air travel seems to be back to business as usual, new passenger demographics and destinations provide an unusual challenge to the way we help passengers get on the move. This is the fourth post in a series where we’re exploring how design strategies are changing the way we deliver and design projects in the post-pandemic world. Read the first, second, and third posts.

Serving as the de facto front door to any airport, the parking garage structure is oftentimes the first and last building visitors encounter when they travel. As such, this makes the parking garage the perfect opportunity to create a welcoming beacon for both visitors and the community. Yet, many airport parking garages present as utilitarian concrete boxes – dreary, and designed with the sole purpose of storing vehicles.

In a previous blog post, I discussed how passenger travel demographics are shifting post-pandemic, with many more people choosing to fly for leisure than for business. Subsequently, the length of time their car is staying in the parking garage has increased. People are also choosing to extend business travel, and using the new flexibility to ‘work from anywhere.’

It’s time to reimagine the role of parking garages and seize their potential. They can be platforms for artistic expression, create a unique sense of place and a landmark for the region’s identity.

Let’s take a look at how Gresham Smith has made the most of parking garage design, and used the ultimate blank canvas to a strategic advantage.

the exterior of Asheville Regional Airport’s three-story parking garage at dusk

If You Can’t Hide It, Highlight It! Asheville Regional Airport (AVL)

To support a more convenient passenger experience, the parking garage structure at Asheville Regional Airport is located directly in front of the terminal building. This means that the five-story parking deck is the public’s first impression of the airport, which deeply concerned the client. AVL sought an aesthetically pleasing, eye-catching garage that incorporated imagery of the Blue Ridge Mountains, as well as the scenic beauty western North Carolina is known for.

Our design solution elevates AVL’s parking garage structure with an artistic exterior façade featuring a 300-foot metal screen wall on both east and west elevations, custom-perforated to form a striking super graphic that evokes the surrounding mountains. A motif portraying the local landscape was also utilized in a relief embossed on precast concrete spandrel panels. This decorative design component now serves as an expressive, signature element for Asheville Regional Airport.

the exterior of the economy parking garage at Tampa International Airport from across the street
the exterior of the economy parking garage at Tampa International Airport at night

A Unique Point of Arrival: Tampa International Airport (TPA)

To address rapid growth at Tampa International Airport, we designed two six-level economy parking garages, which more than doubled available parking at the airport, and provided us with a unique opportunity for creative architectural expression that could make a statement.

The project features a striking 36-square-foot super graphic of the airport’s logo, which is displayed prominently on the side of the north garage. In addition, imaginative floor patterns in the elevator lobbies bring a colorful, artistic element, providing passengers with a distinct point of arrival and a strong sense of place to help them remember where they parked their car. We also recently connected this parking garage to the main terminal with an automated people mover, which is helping to decongest roadways and enhance connectivity.

view of Gerald R. Ford International Airport parking garage from under curbside canopy

Making Passengers Feel Welcome: Gerald R. Ford International Airport (GRR)

As part of Gerald R. Ford International Airport’s Terminal Area Redevelopment plan, Gresham Smith was commissioned to design a new four-level, 4,800-space parking structure. To assist the airport with establishing a brand image, we developed a holistic approach that makes both all passengers feel welcome.

Protection from the elements at the terminal curbside is provided by a grand canopy—a major design feature that spans the existing terminal roof and the top level of the new parking structure. A super graphic Welcome Wall, featuring photography that showcases the Grand Rapids region, greets passengers as they transition from the airport to the curbside. We leveraged both the parking garage identification and overhead directional signs to highlight the airport’s signature brand.

As new passenger dynamics provide an unusual challenge to the way we help people get on the move, innovative design strategies are placing an increased importance on the airport experience. Parking garages are usually the tallest and most visible structures that passengers see before reaching the terminal. Creating a distinctive and personal environment from the moment an airport is in sight is another way to showcase the distinct features of any destination.