Hartsfield-Jackson canopy intended to create grand entrance to airport

8:13 p.m Monday, Oct. 16, 2017 Local
Steve Schaefer
Airport traffic at the north terminal is backed up Wednesday night during the construction of a canopy that will cover the terminal roadway and curbside areas. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

Designers working on plans for canopies over the curbside areas at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport weighed several designs before settling on the plan for massive, steel-framed translucent arched canopies that will light up at night.

The world’s busiest airport more than two years ago asked a team led by architectural firm HOK to figure out how to build canopies over the curbside and roadways on either side of the domestic terminal at the airport. The catch: They had only about a month to come up with the design, said HOK regional leader of engineering Matt Breidenthal.

Architects and engineers brainstormed dozens of ideas for different canopy concepts during a design charrette, then narrowed it down to four potential designs, Breidenthal said.

They included a fabric canopy stretching over the roadway from the garages to the terminal, a tree-like design with a pillar in the middle of the roadway supporting a canopy stretching out from each side over the curbside area, and a canopy with curvy waves.

While a basic lightweight fabric canopy may appear simple and inexpensive to install, Breidenthal said it could be more costly and complex than it seems because the fabric would need to be held taut across the seven lanes of traffic, and would need to be anchored to a structure added to the existing buildings.

The final idea the team settled on was one with a steel frame that creates an archway over vehicles entering the terminal area, and a translucent material for the canopy that can be illuminated with colored lights.

Pedestrian bridges will allow passengers to walk from the garages to the terminal without having to cross the road, an improvement intended to increase safety and reduce traffic congestion.

“It’s not just going to be an architectural icon for the city of Atlanta,” said Hartsfield-Jackson spokesman Andrew Gobeil. “It’s going to increase efficiency, it’s going to expedite traffic, it’s going to provide shelter” for pedestrians.

The canopy and other terminal improvements are part of a $265 million construction contract, including work on the canopy, vestibules and terminal exterior, and other work inside the terminal and on the roof.

Yet to be determined is the cost of the pedestrian bridges. An expenditure of $20 million will pay for initial work to place orders for escalators and elevators, but the bridges themselves will require more spending and the total is yet to be determined.

A benefit of the canopy design is that it does not require support structures on the curbside next to the terminal that would require more construction and congestion in a busy area, according to Breidenthal. A key aim was to “minimize how much we were going to disrupt the existing terminal,” he said.

The 65-foot tall canopies are designed to be large enough to allow clearance above the pedestrian bridges, which must be high enough to allow emergency vehicles to pass underneath, Breidenthal said.

Another aim was to create a dramatic entrance to the terminal, transforming it from “processing to procession,” as HOK’s senior design principal Ripley Rasmus describes it.

Many frequent travelers have become accustomed to lane closures for the last year at Hartsfield-Jackson during installation of the concrete piers that causes congestion during peak periods.

Airport officials say they spent months planning for traffic mitigation. Passengers have complained about the relocation of Uber and Lyft pickups, a move the airport said is necessary to reduce congestion at the curbside during construction.

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said the traffic mitigation requires a “delicate dance” — between police, engineers and construction crews. “I believe the finished product will be worth it,” Reed said.

The terminal North canopy will be completed by May before the terminal South steel goes up with the accompanying road closures, according to Hartsfield-Jackson interim assistant general manager Tom Nissalke.

“From time to time there will be backups, as there are in any airport on occasion, but those backups quickly clear and traffic moves through,” Gobeil said.

Ayden Overson, a traveler from Arizona, said traffic is “expected at an airport,” adding, “I’d rather not have cars go under where they’re putting up that steel.”

Antuan Martinez, a traveler from Miami who came to Atlanta for the Dolphins-Falcons game last weekend, said he noticed the traffic in front of Hartsfield-Jackson.

“In Miami, [the traffic] is more free-flowing,” he said. But, “when there’s any kind of construction, safety comes first,” Martinez said. “The walkway and the canopy — I think it’s a good idea.”

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