The parking dilemma was far more problematic than just having a shortage of spaces; it was also about quality, convenience and safety.
“This area of Michigan gets 84 inches of snow a year, but despite this fact, the airport had no covered parking,” says Principal-in-Charge Al Pramuk. “The airport was experiencing ever-increasing demands for a higher level of service from passengers. Improvements were desperately needed.”
In 2004, Gresham, Smith and Partners began working with several airport stakeholders including the Kent County Department of Aeronautics, the airport’s board of directors and a community advisory committee. Over time, the group composed a list of comprehensive and clearly designed goals for what was to become the Gerald R. Ford International Airport Terminal Area and Parking Improvement Project. The project included a new 4,900-space, four-story parking deck, terminal improvements — including pedestrian sky bridges — a covered roadway canopy for arrivals, departures and drop-offs, replacement of underground utilities and roadway surfaces.
When the project went out for bid in September of 2007, the Grand Rapids community was ready.
“We want this to be a showcase facility that is going to be here for 50 years or more, so we said ‘let’s do this right,’’’ said James Koslosky, executive director of the Kent County Department of Aeronautics. Koslosky called the project “the most significant in the airport’s history.”
A Grand Idea
Stakeholders wanted more than a strong statement for the GFIA improvement project. They wanted it to leave an iconic impression on visitors and passengers. They wanted it to honor the area’s rich history and promising future.
“In many ways this was the best kind of scenario for us,” Pramuk says. “You don’t get many chances to work with a client this determined to see their vision realized. You don’t often get the opportunity to design a project with this much promise to become iconic on such a large scale.”
The GS&P team worked in tandem with the community leaders to find an overarching concept for the project. There was already a strong desire for design solutions that highlighted individual characteristics of the area, but translating visions, values, dreams and ideals into reality would require thought leadership.
“It was very important not to define the design on our own,” Pramuk says. “We conducted two-day work sessions with stakeholders and really worked diligently to get everyone to focus on areas of importance. Nothing is the result of one person’s idea; it was a collaboration of main themes that emerged from the entire group.”
In the end, there was a broad agreement about several factors: the project would need to highlight the influence of nature and nearby Lake Michigan, emphasize the historic ambiance of the revitalized downtown Grand Rapids, and reinforce the region’s strong economic growth.
One of the most significant challenges was coming up with a design solution that would provide sufficient parking within reasonable walking distance of the main terminal, and provide shelter and protection from the weather. Not only did the new parking garage need to be covered, the access areas between the garage and terminal demanded coverage as well. The final solution was to design and build a massive “Grand Canopy”: a 140-feet wide, 600-foot long canopy made of glass and steel. Designed in the shape of a rolling wave — or even of a large sand dune so familiar to the region — the canopy suggests the importance of Lake Michigan to the area and serves as a dominant signature element. Tinted light blue to suggest the color of water, the sculptured cover elegantly connects the terminal and parking garage, and provides a protected area of curbside operations and pedestrian circulation between the garage and the terminal.
“The flowing form of the Grand Canopy is the signature element for the entire airport,” says Pramuk. “It’s the dominating image for those arriving and departing. The curved nature of the canopy blends in with the four-story parking deck and the one-story terminal in a way that doesn’t dwarf the terminal. It works with the parking deck to turn a bustling, successful airport into the gateway to western Michigan.”
The canopy’s design presented unique engineering challenges for the team not only because of its immense size, but also because of the stress it would encounter under western Michigan’s high snowfall amounts. The designed snow load was based on an average snowfall of about 24 inches, and because of the canopy’s shape, the team approximated drifts up to five feet in some areas. The anticipated weight equates to a load of almost 170 pounds per square foot.
“We had the foresight to include steel fabricators and glass manufacturers from the very beginning,” explains David Chesak, senior structural engineer on the project, “so as the design progressed they were able to advise and confirm our specifications. We knew the design would not only collect snow and ice, but the unique shape is susceptible to larger snow drifts, and therefore, more pressure per square foot. Local codes provided general guidelines, but the one-of-a-kind structure required that we think beyond them.”
“The finished structure is easily strong enough to park cars on top, a fact I was happy to repeat each time I was asked, ‘Is it strong enough?’” Chesak states with a grin.
Careful Phasing, Precision Planning
With no flexibility in timeline, and without interrupting service or seriously degrading the passenger experience, the project would need to be completed in two years. As a result, the technical challenges were substantial, not only because of extreme cold, snow, ice and challenging soil conditions, but because of the complications of successfully erecting massive construction materials without disrupting service.
“The canopy erection, which included the lifting of 19-ton trusses, started early each Sunday morning for 13 weeks after clearing the runway of the last plane, and the baggage area of the last passenger,” Pramuk says. “The construction team had a window from midnight to 4 a.m.”
It was also critical not to disrupt curbside operations. Frequent shuttle buses helped passengers get from place to place, depending on the construction demands of the day. And at the northern portion of the new parking structure, the contractor constructed temporary curbside roadways and shelters. Once the temporary curbside was completed, operations were shifted to the new location overnight and work began on the Grand Canopy.
“It was a challenge to maintain the level of service, but we were able to address it very well and consistently maintain a good experience for visitors,” Pramuk says. “Both advanced and flexible planning were a part of the game plan. As the team kept moving down the line, they were affecting a different group of people, and a different area of the terminal. Everything had to be right — and it was.”
"Main Street" Appeal and Elegant Integration
Providing a “Main Street” curbside environment that could blend in well with the structure of the Grand Canopy emerged as a primary strategy. The centerpiece of the Main Street theme in the curbside area is a large “Welcome Wall” that features vibrant images of attractions and events in western Michigan, including video images of Lake Michigan and historic downtown Grand Rapids. Jeff Kuhnhenn, project designer, says the wall provides an immediate sense of place for visitors, as does the integration of orange and tan terracotta cladding along the road, near the front of the terminal and around the sides of ramps.
“The terracotta cladding was a contemporary experience of the historic brick building in downtown Grand Rapids,” Kuhnhenn says. “It was very important to the stakeholders that this element be included, even though it added some expense. It shows you how important local history is to them, and how much they wanted to do more than just make a statement about the future. They wanted to honor the past and face the future with boundless optimism.”
Extensive streetscaping and landscaping throughout the curbside area also contributed to the Main Street appeal of the project.
“We treated the curbside areas as a courtyard and a boulevard rather than a road,” Kuhnhenn explains. “The curbside was to be an extension of the terminal and the garage. It was important to make it a seamless, convenient passage from one to the other.”
Pedestrian convenience, which included protection from rain and snow, also had a strong connection to the Main Street experience. The parking deck, passenger terminal and new curbside functions had to be easy to navigate and provide maximum passenger convenience. Covered pedestrian bridges that spanned from the parking deck to the terminal provided a protected, elevated walk to the parking area.
As soon as the GFIA project was completed in 2009, there was positive response from airport officials and residents of the Grand Rapids metro area. The covered parking area was immediately filled in the first week after opening, and airport officials report over 567,000 parked vehicles annually. Traffic at the airport reached a new high in 2011 with more than 2,275,000 passengers reported. The airport has maintained its status as the second busiest in Michigan.
The community is also proud of the fiscally responsible manner in which the project was managed. The GS&P team designed energy efficiency into every aspect of the project, which helped win tax credits and deductions. Financing of the project was self-supporting and required no funding from property taxes or general funds. The improvements at GFIA were popular in the blogosphere as well.
“What a pleasant surprise the airport was with its Great Canopy and Welcome Wall lit at night,” wrote a late-night blogger who was traveling at 10 p.m.
Airport official Koslosky says the community embraced the project with open arms.
“We now have a modern, state-of-the-art terminal,” Koslosky says. “The facility is very welcoming and truly offers a gateway image for western Michigan.”
Pramuk gives credit to his GS&P team, many of whom made frequent trips to Grand Rapids, and to the Grand Rapids community.
“They really wanted this project,” Pramuk says. “You have an impressive level of commitment and investment coupled with sustained collaboration and communication over a long period of time between all the various stakeholders. It’s not surprising to see such satisfying results.”