What to Consider When Building an Airport Parking Garage

Oct. 11, 2022
Norfolk International Airport and Asheville Regional Airport provide examples of what to consider when building a new parking garage at your airport.

Whether the airport is large, or small, there is a lot to think about when planning for building a parking garage or improving an existing one. Gresham Smith [GS], an infrastructure design group, spoke to us about recent projects at Norfolk International Airport and Asheville Regional Airport, what kind of planning goes into building and upgrading these facilities, and what airports need to consider.

In December of 2021, GS completed construction of a parking facility at Norfolk International Airport in Virginia to provide spaces in addition to what was available in a pre-existing facility.  

In December of 2017, GS had completed construction of a brand-new parking facility at Asheville Regional Airport in North Carolina. Prior to this, the airport did not have a parking facility, simply an open surface parking lot.

Chief Operating Officer at Asheville Regional Airport, Michael Reisman said the airport was experiencing substantial growth over several years and were over capacity in terms of parking requirements.

“The airport historically had less than 400,000 annual enplanements and had about a five or six year run where every year we were breaking the prior year's record in terms of enplanement growth,” Reisman said. “We very quickly got to a point where the surface parking facilities that had served us well for decades were just inadequate in terms of servicing the parking needs and the capacity that we required.”

Executive Vice President of the aviation market at Gresham Smith, Wilson Rayfield said every client is different, and Norfolk and Asheville are very different clients in terms of the projects.

“Norfolk had always planned for this parking garage, Garage D, to be located where it is,” said Rayfield. “They built some new parking 20 years ago and had situated the site to always plan for this garage that was just completed. Whereas Asheville had not anticipated a garage across from the terminal, and in fact, when we first started planning for that project, there was a lot of discussion about several potential alternate locations for that garage.”

Things to Consider

Rayfield said one of the biggest requests from clients when building a parking garage, is that it be as close as possible to the terminal for traveler’s convenience.

“When we first started planning for Asheville, there was a lot of discussion about several potential alternate locations for that garage,” Rayfield said, “… Ultimately they made the decision knowing that the garage would be their premium parking product and wanted to have it as close and convenient as possible to the terminal for that reason.” 

When keeping the client in mind, Rayfield said for airports, you really want to think about the benefits of a sloped garage or flat-surface garage.

“One of the things with an airport garage that you do a little different than, say, a shopping mall or an office building garage is you want all your parking to be on a flat surface,” Rayfield said. “So, a parking garage in a corporate setting is often a sloped driving surface with parking there, but considering passengers unloading baggage, potentially having children with strollers and things like that, you always want all of the parking to be flat, so your ramping structure and your parking structures are somewhat different in that respect.”

Another major item to consider is wayfinding, especially in larger garages.

“Just in general wayfinding is always a challenge for airports,” Rayfield said. “Garages are massive. They don't have the same kind of turnover that office or retail garages have. They have different turnover for that, and so that's what drove the parking count facility technology [HUB] at Norfolk. And that's provided by a vendor that works directly with the access control system at the airport.”

Key Features at Norfolk

Real Time Space Counts

You provide the information about spaces that are available for each level and then on the ramp, as you're circulating up, you have a sign at every level that tells you how many total spaces are available, but also tells you how many accessible spaces are available on each level,” Rayfield said. “The system generally just counts cars in and out for each level, but the accessible spaces actually use video camera and use video analytics to determine the availability of the spaces because there's a few of them on each level, so that they're located immediately adjacent to the elevators. A lot of airports will consider their garages to be full before they get to a hundred percent capacity. They won't send you to a level driving around looking for that last one or two spaces. They may consider full to be 90% or 95% full so there's always spaces there.”

Cast-in Versus Pre-cast

“The garage at Norfolk is a cast in place garage and it has a little bit higher first cost, but a lower cost to maintain, and that cost is also somewhat driven by region and where you're pricing it, and so it was enough of a cost differential in Asheville that they needed to go with the pre-cast garage,” Rayfield said. “Being a cast in place garage, it allows you to have a lower profile structural system as opposed to a pre-cast garage that has the deeper double T concrete beams in them and so it gives you the ability to have a little bit better line of sight and lighting in there that you're not blocked off from lighting and signage.”

Energy-saving Lighting

“The lighting system is a little bit unique in there in that you essentially have three elements to the lighting design,” Rayfield said. “First of all, the lighting at the perimeter of the garage during day times, won't turn on because they're getting enough natural light in so you're not burning lighting at the perimeter where you're already getting day lighting coming in from the outside. Another thing is the lighting drops to a very low level and all the light fixtures have motion sensors in them so that when vehicles or passengers are walking through, they elevate to a brighter lighting level. So, there are some energy saving components to that, you can minimize the amount of energy you're spending burning lighting in a garage that's mostly empty other than when people come and go during peak times.”

 Key Features at Asheville

One of the more unique features of this parking facility is also one of the most eye-catching.

Fresh Air Flow and Aesthetic Appeal

“They were very concerned about the first impression passengers would have at their airport being a parking garage, and so it was a really unique challenge to try and get as much as you can out of a garage on a reasonable budget,” Rayfield said. “You see garages that are just a big gray tilt up concrete box and then you see some garages that are similar to what we did in Asheville, in particular this is one that we're really proud of because it has created such a striking architectural identity for an airport that hasn't seen a lot of new kind of construction for a long time.”

The result allowed them to reflect the local landscape, but still create an open structure. The large metal mountain motif that you see on the face of the garage is created by perforated metal and a variation in the size of the perforations. From inside of the garage and you can see the perforations are quite large, so it allows for fresh air to flow through the garage.

Reisman said they were very pleased with the result being a very attractive facility, yet still budget friendly.

“We were fortunate enough that with the architectural design we ended up with, we ended up with what has been fairly publicly referred to by public officials in our community as the best-looking garage in Western North Carolina,” Reisman said. “And I think that took everybody by surprise, and we were able to do that without going overboard budget wise. The design team looked real hard at some options to create an aesthetic appeal that was affordable. And ultimately, when you look at what our construction cost was on a per space basis, it was right in line with what it would've been for any other garage, yet we were still able to work in the architectural appeal that the building has.”

More Parking Space

“We did not have a parking garage before, we simply had open surface parking previously and we had about 1,400 public parking spaces total between the daily and the hourly parking lots. The new parking garage included a total of 1,324 parking spaces,” Reisman said. “However, 224 of those spaces on the first level we're committed to the rental cars basically for the rental return lot. So, in total, even though the parking garage was over 1,300 parking spaces, we ended up with about 1,100 of those spaces available for public parking.”


According to Rayfield, anytime you're building such a large structure that's on an active airport, you don't have the same site access and mobility issues that you have as compared to a greenfield site, and from a logistics and a staging point of view, it's always more complicated to make sure that you're not blocking access roads where passengers must circulate around the site.

“360 degrees around the Norfolk construction site, you had an active parking garage, an active airport terminal and active roadways on all four sides. So, logistics drive those concerns more than anything, as with any airport project, the construction phasing drives the solution even more than the final design,” Rayfield said. “You have to figure out how to get it there, and so that was probably one of the biggest challenges to just fill in the whole site, maximize the buildable area, but still leave your contractor room to actually move around and handle materials and everything along those lines.”

The other challenge at Norfolk was the arrivals building that the parking garages connect to was built with a future garage in mind, and they built the elevator tower going up all nine levels of the garage to accommodate that in the future.

“It's a little bit more complicated in that than it would've been to just build it with the garage because number one, it's nearly 20 years old, so you have certain settlement issues. You have to bring the elevator system up to current code, and then you're tying in with an existing structure, nine levels, which doesn't give you as much construction tolerance as it would if you built it from scratch,” Rayfield said.

Rayfield said Asheville posed its own set of unique challenges in that it has three functions in it; long term parking, short term parking, and a rental car ready return. With Asheville also being a smaller facility, the design team had to be space conscious with fitting all the requirements of the client. 

“You’re trying to size the garage so that you can segregate those different user functions on a level,” Rayfield said. “It's hard to put short term and long-term parking on the same level and it's certainly hard to mix rental cars with public parking, and so you have unique and discrete access and egress points for vehicles, so they don't mix. As well as passengers, you want to also be very conscious of your circulation to ensure that your passengers aren't crossing unnecessarily those access and egress points for especially people driving rental cars. And so, you spend a lot of time working with the airport to understand their demand, how many short-term, long-term spaces do they need and then how many leasable spaces do they want to provide to the different rental car companies? And so that's a big piece of the complexity on the design side.”

There are many things to consider when planning to build a parking garage, but for both Reisman and Rayfield, the most important is customer satisfaction.

“We really feel like that travel experience begins the minute you drive on airport property and having clear, consistent wayfinding is important from the roadway to the garage, to the terminal, to the gate. And the parking's a big of that,” Rayfield said. “We've looked at different studies that measure passenger anxiety along their journey and the security checkpoint's obviously a high point of anxiety for folks but finding a parking space is another high point of anxiety and finding your gate. Any place there's uncertainty starts to add stress and any opportunity to provide information to alleviate that stress and uncertainty is something we always try and look at.”

Rayfield said the experience a customer has in the parking garage can either set their trip off on a positive note, or bad one.

“Airports are the first and last impression that a traveler has of a new city. If I take my family and go to Austin, Texas, first thing I'll see when I get there is the airport and the last thing I see before I leave would be the airport, and so we similarly kind of stretch that conversation to saying that very often the parking garage is your first and last impression of an airport,” Rayfield said. “Even if I'm going to park in my home airport, fly somewhere and hop in a rental car, I'm going to deal with the landside access component of that airport first and last, when I come and go.”

About the Author

Christina Marsh | Editor

Christina Marsh (Basken) is a passionate aviation enthusiast and sport pilot with industry knowledge and experience in writing and editing for digital and print publications as well as creative content in photography, videography, and podcasting.

Christina graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh with a bachelor’s degree in journalism with a visual emphasis.