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New York Times
By Joe LaPointe
November 16, 2007
The game tomorrow between Ohio State and Michigan for the Big Ten title could be the last in Michigan Stadium’s current configuration. Construction is to begin next week on 83 luxury boxes and a broader renovation. The $226 million project, which was approved despite considerable opposition, will rise above grandstands that have been mostly bleacher benches since the 1927 opening. The luxury boxes are the contentious heart of the project, but they are not the only point of disagreement involving the evolution of a 107,501-seat stadium known as The Big House, the nation’s largest college football edifice.
By Monday, the university must respond to a complaint from the federal Department of Education that the stadium in Ann Arbor, Mich., provides insufficient access to people with disabilities. The department has threatened to withhold Michigan’s federal funding if changes are not made but appears more likely to take the matter to the Justice Department.
Michigan Stadium currently has 88 seats for the disabled, far short of the more than 1,000 that advocates say are required. The luxury box dispute and the dispute about access for the disabled are separate issues. Yet together, they have spurred debate about priorities in the Michigan athletic department and its prosperous football program.
Stadium capacity will expand to 108,251 through the project, and the luxury boxes are expected to lease for as much as $85,000 a year. The expansion will also include about 3,200 exclusive club seats outside of the luxury boxes but apart from bench seating. More than 200 accessible spaces are expected to be among the luxury boxes and club seats.
“Clearly, the University of Michigan felt it is more important to accommodate millionaires in luxury boxes than it is to guarantee equal access to the stadium for disabled fans,” said John Pollack, who organized a group called Save the Big House.
Pollack said the administration ignored a petition against the renovation signed by more than 600 faculty members and staff workers, as well as opposition by the university Senate Assembly, a faculty group.
It is unclear how much federal funding is at stake or whether the Education Department will pursue that option. Published reports in Michigan have estimated the figure to be $850 million.
The university also faces a federal civil lawsuit in which the Paralyzed Veterans of America Michigan Chapter has made accusations regarding access. Several Michigan officials, including the university’s president, Mary Sue Coleman, were sent notices of deposition Wednesday.
“It’s outrageous,” said Richard Bernstein, a lawyer for the paralyzed veterans. “This case goes to the heart and soul of the Americans with Disabilities Act.”
Michigan has contended that the original stadium bowl is being repaired, not renovated, and is not subject to A.D.A. rules set in 1990. Neither Coleman nor the athletic director, Bill Martin, responded to interview requests in the past week through Kelly Cunningham, a university spokeswoman.
Gloria A. Hage, a lawyer for the university, said in a telephone interview Wednesday that improvements would include new concourses and elevators. She said the university was committed to accessibility in the stadium and that officials would study the possibility of adding space for the disabled in the main bowl. She would not provide a projected number of new seating spaces for the disabled.
“The main bowl is not part of the expansion project,” Hage said.
The Education Department has challenged the university on this point and on the definitions of words like renovation and repair. In a letter dated Oct. 26, the department’s Office for Civil Rights accused the university of misleading investigators by classifying major renovations over recent years, including the addition of 6,829 new seats in the 1990s, as mere repairs.
“The defenses asserted by the university are unsupportable,” wrote Harry A. Orris, the director of the Civil Rights office in Cleveland. “Almost all of the stadium’s seating bowl and the stadium grounds were added to or altered. The university failed to provide important information in response to repeated requests.”
His letter asserted that a disabled spectator unsuccessfully seeking a route to a restroom was forced to soil himself, a “humiliating experience.” His 37-page letter of findings also said patrons complained that wheelchair sections were oversold and crowded.
In a response Nov. 5, Hage said she was surprised by the government’s findings, which she described as “irrefutably skewed and flawed.”
“The construction repair project was not an alteration,” Hage wrote, referring to work that has gone on intermittently for more than a decade. Michigan, she wrote, viewed the report as “fundamentally unfair and wrong.”
The luxury box issue ended in a victory for the university administration in June, when the Board of Regents approved the plan in a 6-2 vote. Opponents charged that public debate had been stifled.
Other Big Ten universities, including Michigan State, Ohio State and Penn State, have renovated their stadiums with additional seats and luxury boxes. Seat totals and boxes are thought to be factors in recruiting players and encouraging donations.
Michigan Stadium is unusual in that its grandstands are below ground level in a deep bowl. Critics say erecting two large buildings with luxury boxes along the sidelines will block sunlight, change the feel of a previously egalitarian seating configuration and alter the architectural personality of the structure.
Proponents say the changes are necessary to keep up. In The Michigan Daily on Oct. 30, Coleman was quoted as saying, “I firmly believe this project has gotten all the robust discussion it’s needed.”
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