At most airports, the parking garage is a place to store passengers' vehicles and generate non-aeronautical revenue - nothing more; nothing less. At Long Beach Airport (LGB) in California, officials consider it a valuable opportunity to announce their service philosophy. And the new five-story $56 million facility speaks volumes.
"We will take the stress out of travel by providing a high-end experience," explains airport director Mario Rodriguez. "We're developing for a boutique-style environment that makes travel pleasant again."
As such, Rodriguez is intent on not building a series of concrete boxes connected by metal tubes as the airport undergoes a $140 million modernization effort. The new parking structure, for instance, includes decorative glass panels, a landscaped courtyard and an open, graduated facade that facilitates views of LGB's historic passenger concourse. The campus was also rearranged to locate the garage within walking distance of the terminal.
"Passengers can get from their car to their gate in about 30 minutes - often in 15," reports Rodriguez. In the densely packed Los Angeles/Orange County area, travelers place a high value on such expediency and ease, he adds.
Cost of the new facility will be offset by the elimination of ongoing monthly expenses for 24/7 parking shuttles. Before the new garage opened in mid-July, almost half of LGB's parking was located in an off-site surface lot ½ mile away - an arrangement that was inconvenient for passengers and costly for the city-owned airport. Between contracting shuttle service and leasing land from Boeing for the lot itself, the airport spent about $1.8 million per year.
In early September, the new garage was grossing $350,000 per month as hoped. By setting its daily rate at $17, officials priced it below options at nearby airports ($30 per day at Los Angeles International and $20 per day at John Wayne Airport).
Eliminating shuttle service also supports Rodriguez's goal of making LGB one of the greenest airports in the nation by reducing vehicle emissions and ambient noise. Solar panels will further boost the facility's environmental contribution when installed next year.
Despite his support of the facility's environmental aspects, Rodriguez stresses how the new garage will directly affect passengers. "Developing human-scale facilities is one way we can elevate the customer's experience," he explains.
Replacing surface parking with a second covered lot provides an upgrade for airport visitors. "After their houses, passengers' cars are often their biggest asset," he notes.
To Rodriguez, serving customers is the crux of the airport business. "Safe and efficient operations isn't an option; it's a requirement," he relates. "We're really in the service industry. Everything we do needs to keep that in mind - including the parking garage. It's the first thing people see when they drive in to the airport."
The new parking facility is the first and largest project of LGB's ongoing $140 million modernization plan. Other main components include a general rehab of the airport's existing historic terminal, construction of an additional passenger concourse and $33 million of ramp renovations. A consolidated checkpoint, garden atrium, expanded WiFi service and new concessions are among the upgrades designed to further enhance customer comfort.
Ensuring the near-term financial feasibility of the parking garage and other major improvement projects was crucial to Rodriguez. "It's shockingly simple: Empty spaces don't pay debt service," he emphasizes. "Sure, it's great to have room to grow into, but creating the 'ultimate build-out' leaves an airport vulnerable. If airlines pull out or customer trends change, someone has to pay the piper."
LGB officials consequently directed Watry Design to keep in mind the airport's current passenger volume (almost 3 million passengers) as well as FAA traffic forecasts when engineering the new 1,989-space garage and adjacent 246-space surface lot. With the existing garage, the airport's total parking capacity is about 3,250. Original plans for the new garage called for a 4,000-stall facility.
"We're not interested in building a Taj Mahal," relates Rodriguez. "We're focused on improving the travel experience for the customer."
According to him, emphasizing service is more important than ever. "It's gotten less expensive to fly, but the experience has changed - and not for the better," he explains. "We now have a much more democratic system, but flying isn't nearly as pleasant as it used to be."
As airlines reduce service in an attempt to preserve their profitability, the experience degrades even further, he continues: "That's where we come in. By doing things like moving the garage onsite and keeping everything to a human scale, we can make the experience better. Some airports are built to such monumental proportions, they overwhelm passengers and make them feel small."
Despite being located in the heavily populated Los Angeles metroplex, Rodriguez is determined to preserve LGB's "small airport" culture. He's also intent on maintaining the airport's top rankings for lowest ticket prices and its mix of legacy carriers (Delta Air Lines, US Airways, Alaska Airlines) and those that stress low-price fares (Allegiant and JetBlue Airways). "We have a diverse customer base, so we need a product line and route map that has something for everyone," he explains. "Our demographics are all over the board."
LGB is limited to 41 flights per day due to local noise ordinances.
Wait for It
City officials, airport management and design/build contractor ARB endured numerous trials and tribulations before celebrating the project's ground breaking in December 2009. After ARB signed a lump sum agreement in August 2003, the company waited more than six years to begin preliminary site work while the airport answered legal challenges about the project from a local citizen group.
"All the plans had to scrapped, and it was a long, drawn-out process," recalls ARB president Mark Thurman. "But the delay gave everyone extra time to really think the project through, and it was actually better for it in the end." ARB's patience seemed to be rewarded with good construction karma. Cooperative weather and expedited permitting helped the contractor make up time and finish the project four months ahead of schedule and $2 million under budget according to airport officials.
"The initial assumption was that we'd have to finish all the related infrastructure work - building roads, moving utilities, removing hazardous materials - before we could prepare the pad for the building," explains Thurman. "But with the help of the Building Department and a lot of innovation, we were able to start sooner."
Utilities, for instance, were bridged before they were moved. This allowed crews to proceed with construction at the main site while related infrastructure work was completed.
Before any work began, however, the original design was altered at the request of the city planning commission. The entire structure was turned 90 degrees and the northwest corner of the building was graduated to help create a "visual corridor" to the airport's original terminal, which is a historic landmark registered with the city.
Exterior graphics and additional glass were added to make the new structure "look less like a garage" and corners were rounded to complement the art deco design of the 1941 terminal just across the adjacent rental car lot.
"The new plan had some really neat adaptations that preserve the historic feel of the airport," notes Thurman.
Although the design changes dramatically altered ARB's scope of work and schedule, Thurman appreciates their results. "I remember the airport in its heyday, and it was sad to see the place fall into disrepair and lose business," he recalls. "I'm glad to see improvements underway and the airport coming back so strong. It's such an important economic engine for the community."
Thurman and others in the community credit Rodriguez for moving the project out of its holding pattern - an especially noteworthy compliment as he has yet to celebrate his three-year anniversary at the airport. "His arrival was the catalyst that got things off dead center," says Thurman. "Even after his honeymoon period was over, he was able to really get things done."
After just a few months in operation, the new parking garage is already producing palpable benefits, observes Rodriguez. "A garage within easy walking distance creates a more relaxed environment," he explains. "Passengers arrive to the terminal less stressed, which in turn takes the pressure off our TSA and airline partners. Everybody knows they have plenty of time, so the overall atmosphere is much calmer."
When the majority of passengers are relaxed, he adds, it's easier for airport staff to accommodate customers who are running late.
As the first major element of the modernization plan, the garage set a high benchmark for the remaining projects by finishing months ahead of schedule and millions under budget. Construction of the new terminal has been underway since December 2010, and renovation of the historic terminal is ongoing. On the airside, almost all of the ramp has been upgraded from asphalt to concrete; the small remaining portion is expected to be complete by Thanksgiving. In addition, five of the airport's ten pads have been electrified to help reduce aircraft emissions; the remaining half will receive pre-conditioned air and power when construction of the new concourse is complete. All primary elements of the modernization plan are expected to be complete by 2013.