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Detroit Free Press
By Robin Erb, Free Press Education Writer
March 11, 2008
The University of Michigan's storied football stadium will have at least 329 wheelchair-accessible seats scattered throughout its bowl area by the kickoff of the 2010 football season, settling a legal dispute between the university, the Michigan Paralyzed Veterans of America and the U.S. Department of Justice.
The agreement, spelled out in a filing Monday in U.S. District Court in Detroit, puts an end to at least some of the criticism from students, faculty, fans and disabled people about the renovations. It also sidesteps what could have been long litigation over how much renovation can take place in an older structure before compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act has to be considered.
Changes will begin with the next season, when 96 new accessible seats plus seats for companions will be available along the east side of Michigan Stadium. The deal also calls for the university to make parking and restrooms wheelchair accessible. The sides will meet by Jan. 31, 2011, to determine whether more accessible seating should be added.
U-M officials said the school will go beyond the terms of the agreement and make an additional 135 accessible seats part of the luxury seating to be added in 2010.
It's a template that may be used across the country as construction managers work out how to meet the needs of disabled patrons -- whether at "a stadium or a restaurant or a hotel or a shopping center or a hotel," said Richard Bernstein, the attorney who represented the veterans group.
The veterans filed a federal lawsuit against U-M last year as the university finalized plans for $226 million in renovations of the 80-year-old stadium also known as the Big House. At issue was accessible seating -- the 107,501-seat stadium had fewer than 100 wheelchair-accessible seats. The group also argued that entryways and restrooms were inadequate.
Renovations, they argued, triggered the federal ADA, which it said required U-M to build in more than 1,080 accessible seats. U-M had planned for 592 seats, but many were portable.
The U.S. Department of Education and eventually the U.S. Department of Justice argued for more seating. In the meantime, students, faculty and staff became increasingly critical of the planned renovations -- first because of plans to add luxury seats and the accessibility issues, and, most recently, because the university moved commencement ceremonies out of the stadium because of the work.
The settlement addresses only the accessibility issue.
"If someone had told me day one that this would have been the final outcome, I would have been ecstatic," said Mike Harris, executive director of the veterans group. He said the goal was never to make the university provide more than 1,000 seats: As with any negotiation, he said, "you go high and then go toward the middle."
The total number of seats in the deal is less than U-M had proposed, but the veterans group accepted the number because the seats will be permanent and the university agreed to the other improvements.
University officials and the veterans said they believe all those seats will be filled for each game.
U-M's interim general counsel, Gloria Hage, called the settlement win-win.
The U.S. Department of Justice stepped into the legal battle in November.
Shortly after that, Judge Sean Cox ordered that Justice inspectors be allowed at the stadium. In the meantime, attorneys for the veterans were to begin taking depositions about the plans from university officials.
Those depositions were put on hold as negotiations began, Hage said.
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