Will the Big House stay the biggest?

BY ARIKIA MILLIKAN AND GABE NELSON
Daily Staff Reporters
Published September 5, 2007

Despite the federal lawsuit challenging the legality of the planned renovations to Michigan Stadium, Athletic Department officials said construction will begin after the home football season ends in November.

If the University loses the suit and doesn't rework its plans, the Athletic Department could be forced to replace thousands of regular seats with wheelchair-accessible seating, eliminating the Big House's status as the largest college football stadium in the country.

Other options could allow the department to maintain the stadium's size supremacy even if it loses the suit, but University officials say they won't speculate about possible changes to the project.

The University Board of Regents approved in June the final component of a plan to overhaul Michigan Stadium, adding luxury boxes, premium seating and a new press box on top of the stadium bowl. Seats and aisles in the bowl would be widened and new concessions and restrooms would be added to the main concourse.

The $226 million project is slated for completion by the beginning of the 2010 football season.

The proposal passed despite a lawsuit by the Michigan Paralyzed Veterans of America, which is arguing that the project violates the Americans with Disabilities Act because it doesn't make 1 percent of all seats in the Big House wheelchair-accessible.

A trial is tentatively set for September 2008.

If the University loses the case against MPVA after construction begins, the Athletic Department would have to rework the plans to meet ADA standards.

Because one wheelchair-accessible seat takes up as much space as about 12 regular seats, the stadium would lose about 4,000 seats in the bowl if the Athletic Department were forced to alter its plans, said Associate Athletic Director Jason Winters. At that point, the stadiums at Penn State and Tennessee would have larger capacities than the Big House unless the Athletic Department devises a way to offset the loss of those seats.

Winters and University President Mary Sue Coleman refused to comment on any contingency plans the University has in case it loses the suit.

"It's just impossible for me to deal with hypotheticals," Coleman said in an interview yesterday. "We're in very productive discussion right now, and I expect that we will come out with a good solution for everything."

There are some possible options that would preserve the Big House's size.

The Athletic Department could reverse its plan to widen all seats and aisles within the seating bowl. According to information released by the Athletic Department, widening the aisles and seats would remove about 4,300 seats from the bowl, meaning reversing that plan would offset at least part of the loss of seats caused by bringing the stadium up to ADA standards.

Another option could be adding bleacher seats at the top of the bowl behind the endzones, which aren't blocked by the structures on the sidelines.

The Athletic Department officials will not discuss the feasibility of either of these options.

Richard Bernstein, the MPVA's attorney and a political science lecturer at the University, said the judge must decide whether the concrete pouring project and the stadium project constitute repairs or alterations. While a substantial alteration to the stadium would legally oblige the University to comply with ADA standards, repairs don't have that effect.

While University officials claim the lawsuit relates to construction on the stadium's concrete bowl that took place over the last decade - not the luxury boxes being built along the bowl's rim - Bernstein said the stadium project will alter the stadium as a whole, which would require the University to bring the entire stadium up to ADA standards.

Bernstein said the University's argument that the lawsuit has nothing to do with the current construction is outrageous.

"Of course it does," Bernstein said. "They're just parsing words and doing what they always do."

Coleman said the renovation project will help everyone, including disabled people. It adds 192 wheelchair-accessible seats to the stadium, bringing the total number to 282.

"The construction project will provide tremendously enhanced accessibility for everybody," Coleman said.