University President Mary Sue Coleman said yesterday that the decades-old structure of Michigan Stadium makes it impossible to add wheelchair-accessible seating anywhere besides the entrance portal, meaning the University couldn’t make 1 percent of all seats in the stadium bowl wheelchair-accessible without performing a major overhaul.

That’s the standard laid out in the Americans with Disabilities Act that the Michigan Paralyzed Veterans of America and the Department of Justice say the University should have to meet. They’re suing in federal court to force the University to comply with the ADA.

“You can’t get more than something like 350 seats plus companion seats,” Coleman said. “It’s not physically possible unless you destroy the bowl and start over.”

Coleman said in an interview yesterday that she was disappointed by the University’s inability to reach a settlement with the Office of Civil Rights over how to make Michigan Stadium accessible to disabled fans.

The office, which conducted an eight-year investigation of the stadium, referred the case to the U.S. Department of Justice last week. The Justice Department was granted permission the next day to become a co-plaintiff in a federal court case filed by the MPVA, saying the University should be forced to upgrade Michigan Stadium to comply with Americans with Disabilities Act standards.

“We were working diligently to come to a settlement with the Department of Education. When that didn’t happen, the next logical thing was to turn it over to the Department of Justice,” Coleman said. “There’s a disagreement here, and one of the ways you settle disagreements if you can’t come to a settlement is to let the courts decide.”

The University has argued that concrete replacement projects that took place in the seating bowl over the last 15 years should be considered repairs rather than alterations. Public venues built before the ADA took effect in 1990 must comply with the full set of regulations – including making 1 percent of all seats wheelchair-accessible – once a substantial alteration to the structure takes place.

The stadium currently has 88 wheelchair-accessible seats but would have as many as 600 after an expansion project scheduled to be completed in 2009. That’s still far fewer than the more than 1,000 seats that would be required if the stadium were forced to upgrade to meet ADA regulations.

After the expansion, the stadium would have 300 permanent wheelchair-accessible seats located in the bowl and in premium seating structures being built on the sidelines. Those structures will house controversial luxury boxes. The University announced last week a plan to build removable seating platforms around the entrance portal of the seating bowl. The platforms will be added or removed based on demand, adding as many as 300 more wheelchair-accessible seats to the bowl.

Richard Bernstein, a lawyer representing the Michigan Paralyzed Veterans of America, said in an interview last week that the University has acted as if the Americans with Disabilities Act doesn’t apply to them.

“You cannot go and create your own standards,” Bernstein said. “The law is very clear as to what is expected and what needs to be done.”

Coleman said it doesn’t make sense to reserve hundreds of additional seats for disabled fans when the University has never had more than 95 requests for wheelchair-accessible seats at a single football game. Because one wheelchair-accessible seat takes up as much space as about a dozen regular seats, Coleman estimated that installing permanent disabled seating around the entire bowl portal would eliminate about 4,500 total seats in the bowl.

Although eliminating that number of season tickets would lose the Athletic Department almost $2 million in annual season ticket revenue and would likely drop Michigan Stadium from the largest football stadium in the country to third, behind Penn State’s Beaver Stadium and Ohio State’s Ohio Stadium, Coleman did not explicitly cite cost or capacity as reasons the University would be reluctant to install permanent wheelchair-accessible seating around the entire seating bowl. She said she was concerned that adding hundreds of additional wheelchair-accessible seats would lead to empty seats and a drop in the number of season tickets available.

“We try to balance the needs of all the patrons,” Coleman said. “What I don’t think anybody wants here is to see empty seats at the stadium that people are not using, but we want to have good plans so that everyone will have an opportunity to have a good seat at the stadium.”

Bernstein said in an interview last week that there is little demand for wheelchair-accessible seating because the stadium doesn’t adequately accommodate disabled fans – leading many to choose not to attend the games. He said the University must address other problems with the stadium, like excessively steep ramps and inaccessible paths from parking lots to seats.

“If they don’t fix the other stuff, no one will want to come,” Bernstein said.

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