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The dispute regarding accessibility for disabled could cost millions and affect other universities.
By Marisa Schultz
December 24, 2007
Days before the U.S. Department of Justice joined a lawsuit against the University of Michigan, alleging the Big House is hundreds of wheelchair seats shy of meeting federal law, the case was resonating nearly 700 miles away.
At University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, construction crews were in the midst of demolishing the university's baseball stadium.
Alarmed by the federal sanctions threatened against U-M, UNC's director of disability services sent a message to the project's architect: Are we perfectly satisfied with the redesign of our stadium?
U-M's fight with the federal government has caught the attention of leaders of colleges, athletics and organizations for the disabled nationwide, as its outcome could have broad -- and costly -- implications for scores of old stadiums in need of upgrades.
The stakes are high for U-M. A loss in court could cost the stadium up to 4,000 bench seats, more than $2.1 million in annual ticket revenue and its title as the largest football stadium in the nation, according to U-M athletic department figures.
"We are absolutely paying attention to this case," said Mark Bodenschatz, associate athletic director for facilities and operations at Penn State. A Wolverine victory, some advocates for the disabled fear, may weaken the landmark 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act, which ensured equal opportunity for disabled patrons.
What makes the case peculiar, some say, is that U-M not too long ago championed affirmative action for underserved students all the way to the Supreme Court.
"This is a university that has taken principled positions in other areas of civil rights," said Andrew Imparato, head of the Washington-based American Association of People With Disabilities. "To me it's particularly troubling. You would think they would take the opportunity to be leaders on this issue, as they have been in other areas of civil rights."
David Brandon, a former U-M regent, said he can't find another university with the track record of U-M for caring about people with special needs.
"The university feels what they have done with the stadium project is appropriate and in compliance with the law, or they wouldn't be defending their position," Brandon said.
Two questions arise
The U.S. Justice Department's case against U-M could have broad implications beyond the Big House, as it could tighten up standards that dictate how and when old facilities must comply with the ADA. In particular, the case could clear up two issues:
"Those two issues are probably the two issues the architects and designers working on stadiums everywhere will focus on because those are the hinge points of how they have to plan in the future," said L. Scott Lissner, ADA coordinator at Ohio State University.
U-M offered to create about 300 wheelchair spots in the bowl at each entryway, but only if the seating were on portable platforms that could be replaced with regular bench seating if not needed.
The Office for Civil Rights rejected this offer, in part, because the seating wasn't permanent, prompting the U.S. Department of Justice's intervention to compel enforcement.
If the court sides with the U.S. government in the case that could go to trial in the fall, then "people (at colleges around the nation) will need to raise more money and be more cautious about how they design. ... Ultimately, the cost will be some loss in seating," Lissner said.
Such a ruling may affect other stadiums with temporary wheelchair seats. At Notre Dame, many wheelchair seats can be converted to bench seats, and that's what happens each season based on demand, according to Josh Berlo, assistant athletic director for the Fighting Irish.
The U-M case may also change the way municipalities, public schools and state and federal governments handle repair projects -- all of which tend to rely heavily on putting Band-Aids on problems during periods of belt tightening, Lissner said.
"If you defer long enough (and buildings deteriorate), you have to do a larger scale project over X number of years," Lissner said. "At some point, does that add up to a renovation?"
Put another way: A bathroom may have a leaky facet. That's replaced, and during the repair, the wall is damaged and needs to be retiled. Years later, the toilet is leaking, and that's replaced. "At some point, I've got a brand new bathroom in there and I have not done anything about accessibility," Lissner said.
U-M: We're in compliance
U-M officials say Michigan Stadium complies with federal accessibly laws and it will continue to do so. They've spent $200,000 so far on the legal fight.
And despite the federal lawsuit, U-M is moving ahead with a $226 million renovation that will widen aisles and seats and create a new press box, concourse, 85 luxury boxes that will cost up to $85,000 a year to rent, and 3,200 indoor and outdoor club seats that will cost up to $4,000 apiece.
U-M agrees that the project is subject to higher compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act -- but only in the new seating areas, not in the existing bowl.
"What you have is an athletic department that is dragging the reputation of the university through the mud by saying it's more important to put multi-millionaires in luxury boxes than grant equal access to the stadium for all Americans," said John Pollack, creator of savethebighouse.com, a Web site that protests the luxury boxes.
If U-M has to add permanent wheelchair seating throughout the stadium, at least 4,000 bench seats would be lost as well as $2.1 million in ticket revenue, U-M officials said.
Bragging rights at stake
That would mean U-M would no longer be the largest stadium in country -- with Penn State's Beaver Stadium holding the new bragging rights at 107,282.
Not only will U-M lose revenue, but the ability to accommodate season ticket holders, Jason Winters, chief financial officer of U-M's athletic department, said.
"We are interested in providing accessible seating to certainly meet demand. We don't want to create a position where (bench) seats are lost and then the demand for accessible seats isn't there. It's just a wasted resource." Remaining the country's largest football stadium was one of the guiding principles of the renovation project, Athletic Director Bill Martin told the U-M Board of Regents in May.
But losing bragging rights wouldn't be nearly as devastating as booting out loyal fans, Winters said. There are 10,000 people on the waiting list for season tickets.
"I'd be totally disappointed and may not go back," Steve Skikun, 40, a U-M alumnus from Commerce Township, said of losing his seats.
Even being moved to a different part of the stadium would be difficult, as fans in his section have bonded over the years.
"It's like a neighborhood," said Skikun, who waited four years for tickets. "If you are not at the game, they are wondering if you are OK. If you get displaced, you lose a bit of the family you see every Saturday."
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