New Parking Structure Readies Grand Rapids for Traffic Rebound

Robert Nordstrom
Published in: 

Winter is just arriving, but travelers at Gerald R. Ford International (GRR) in Grand Rapids are already relishing the airport's new covered parking and enclosed skywalk. Apparently no one misses schlepping through Michigan's biting cold to get to the terminal or digging vehicles out of the snow once they return.

Part of the airport's 1992 Master Plan, the $118 million structure is the largest capital development project in GRR history. The four-story, 1.8 million-square-foot structure features covered rental car facilities, a wave-shaped canopy connecting the garage to the terminal and 4,700 new parking spaces - enough to meet forecasted needs through 2023, say project planners.

A Long Time Coming

Conceptual designs for the structure began in 2001, but the project was delayed for financial, operational and security reasons after 9/11.

"The project essentially sat on the shelf for a number of years," explains GRR marketing and communications manager Bruce Schedlbauer. "We needed to know what we were dealing with in terms of construction requirements post-9/11. And, of course, air traffic dropped off, which created financial restrictions."

But the need for a new facility did not disappear. The public had wanted covered parking for years, so airport officials dusted off the project in 2005. GRR broke ground for the new facility in 2007 and two years later opened it on time and on budget.

The project was financed primarily through airport revenue bonds. "People have asked why, in this economic environment, we decided to move forward with this project," Schedlbauer says. "Can you imagine what the cost would be if we put on the brakes and restarted it after the economy comes back? The FAA forecast, as well as our own forecast, says we're going to see a rebound in air traffic. We want to make sure we're ready for it."

Facts & Figures

Location: Gerald R. Ford International Airport, Grand Rapids, MI

Cost: $118 million

Size: 4 stories; 1.8 million sq. ft.; 4,700 parking spaces

Primary Funding: Airport revenue bonds

Architect of Record: Gresham, Smith and Partners

Contractor: The Christman Company

Subcontractors: Velding Company, Natural Light, Steel Con, Architectural Glass and Metals, Davenport Masonry, Rite-Way Plumbing and Heating, Windemuller Electric, Christman Constructors/Grand River Construction.

Construction: 2 years

Looks Count

On a practical level, the new facility needed covered parking for protection from the elements, ease of use and customer service amenities. But airport officials wanted more than concrete with lined spaces and a roof.

"They wanted a structure that represented the community," explains Al Pramuk, division vice president and partner in charge of the project for architect of record Gresham, Smith and Partners. "They wanted it to be in line with the downtown development efforts in Grand Rapids in recent years so that visitors recognized the airport as the gateway to Western Michigan."

To that end, the architectural design features a sculpted canopy over the roadway between the terminal and garage, with planters along the sidewalks to create an urban streetscape feel. Terra cotta materials soften the building's facade, adds Pramuk.

Two enclosed upper-level skywalks connect the terminal to the garage. At the street level, people exit the terminal into a sheltered environment. The sculpted canopy lets in natural light, but still provides protection from the elements. Crossing the roadway to the parking structure, passengers are greeted by a 150-foot-long photo collage that highlights the local community, arts events and Lake Michigan area.

Operational Issues

The most challenging part of the project for construction contractor The Christman Company was keeping airport facilities fully operational and the public and staff safe while contractors performed their work. With more than 200 workers on site seven days a week during peak construction, safety was paramount, notes vice president Scott Jones. "We're proud to report no significant safety issues occurred during the project's nearly 700,000 work hours," Jones reports.

The greatest technical challenge, he notes, was placing the enormous steel trusses that support the wave-like canopy, made of 3,000 pieces and three acres of glass. The trusses underwent final assembly onsite to ensure dimensional accuracy and were erected during the night.

"When the trusses were set on the columns," Jones recalls, "the bolts lined up perfectly. Steel Con [the contractor that supplied and placed the trusses] did an excellent job."

For approximately one year during construction, the entire front of the terminal building was closed. The passenger drop-off/pickup area was moved 175 feet away from the terminal and a temporary short-term parking lot was opened. Two aboveground, enclosed walkways directed passengers to and from the terminal. The temporary tunnels were moved numerous times throughout construction to allow the contractors to proceed with their work.

Roadways and entrances to the terminal area were modified to improve traffic flow and aging utility infrastructure was also improved.

"We had to go through one winter with the front of the terminal closed down," Schedlbauer recalls. "We covered the drop-off/pickup area and placed some space heaters, but it wasn't the same as waiting inside the terminal. It gets cold here, but we made it work."

A PR Project, Too

Effective communication among airport management, architects, contractors and the public was key to ensuring minimal interruptions to airport activities and on-time delivery of the new facility, say airport officials.

Throughout the two-year construction project, airport management focused on maintaining excellent communications with the public. Personalized walk-through tours were organized for the news media. The airport website posted information about how to best negotiate the airport during construction. Informational flyers and maps were distributed, and signage was strategically placed and updated.

"From the day we broke ground," Schedlbauer notes, "we wanted to make sure that at the end of the project no one could say we failed to communicate about what we were doing, why we were doing it and how the public could best use the airport during construction. I think we did pretty well in meeting that goal."

Jones is similarly pleased with the project's design outcome: "It's a monumental and beautiful facility when you see the grand canopy with its skylights and the four-story parking deck," he says. "I know Grand Rapids is going to be proud of it."


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