Friday, May 19, 2006

Michigan Stadium's ruin or renaissance

The story is familiar.

A president under the influence of a highly motivated, polarizing advisor adopts an ambitious plan. The plan is cloaked in secrecy, but it turns out to be far more ambitious than what anyone expected. Partisans on one side vocally militate on behalf of the president's ambitious agenda, while a ragtag collection of disorganized hippies circulates self-righteous propaganda in opposition. At a deciding moment, some elected Democrats unsuccessfully vote in opposition, but are left frustrated that they can't thwart the inevitable steamroll.

At least we're not declaring war on Indiana.

In a 5-3 vote, the University of Michigan Board of Regents decided in favor of the Athletic Department's massive $226 million expansion of Michigan Stadium, primarily focused on the construction of 83 luxury boxes.

For those of you who are unfamiliar, Michigan Stadium seats about 107,500 of my best friends. Despite the crowd size, it feels half as big as Yankee Stadium. It's built into the ground, and the vision lines are more panoramic than vertical. As a result, while you may find yourself far from the action, you're not watching from a crow's nest. It's as intimate as any 100,000+ venue can be.

Change is coming.

As described in a Detroit News article:
[Athletic Director Bill] Martin said the project, which will add 83 private suites in towers running along the east and west sides of Michigan Stadium and at about the height of the current scoreboards, will be completed by the 2010 season. The renovations will add to the current 107,501 capacity of Michigan Stadium and put it at more than 108,000.
Detroit Free Press columnist Michael Rosenberg:
[P]eople familiar with U-M's planned proposal paint a picture that is ... well ... really large.

How large? Two structures totaling 425,000 square feet. For a comparison: the Palace, with all its atriums and offices, is 570,000 square feet. U-M's proposal is the equivalent of placing a large dormitory on each side of the stadium.

On the west side (where the press box is located), the luxury boxes would be the equivalent of a six-story building stretching from one end zone to the other. On the east side, they would be the equivalent of an eight-story building stretching from one end zone to the other.

Michigan Regent Laurence Deitch, who was one of the three dissenting votes:

"I am disappointed," Deitch said. "Everybody expressed their thoughts, and we live with the majority rule, and at this point, I await the design, which I think will cause significant consternation, because the public has no idea how massive these additions are. I also wonder whether the project can be delivered within the cost projected."

Since I'm given to kneejerk, occasionally irrational opinions, I'm surprised that I'm still ambivalent about this project. On one side, it's a little like Detroit baseball leaving Tiger Stadium -- sad and inevitable. On the other, the program needs money to thrive, and I don't see luxury boxes as dirtying the program's tradition. Class-based arguments don't fly when season tickets already are distributed in lines similar to Medieval primogeniture laws and cost several hundred bucks to boot. Michigan football is many things, but egalitarian is not one of them.

But the following things make me nervous:

Politics. The University of Michigan is in a scary position. It's a great public university in a state that's rapidly turning into the Mississippi of the Midwest. I don't say that to be snotty about my homestate -- I say it out of pain and love. The Big Three automakers are falling apart and smaller manufacturers have been shutting down since I was in elementary school. The state's budget shrinks, and the University of Michigan takes a hit.

It's been taking hits for a few years. It will keep taking hits regardless.

Still, this kind of aggressive move may be very bad PR. For politicians, the school already is a ripe target. It's the only selective school in the state; it's not exactly humble. Many of its homegrown graduates (myself included) leave the state after graduation and don't look back. Its faculty and graduates are more liberal than the state as a whole. If you're an elected official in the state of Michigan, and you're looking for a soft target to cut costs and take potshots at a liberal elite, the University of Michigan is high on your list.

In an economically troubled, increasingly right-wing state, the liberal flagship university launches a massive $200 million-plus expansion of a sports complex, geared toward catering to the comforts of the richest, most elite portion of an alumni that's already better off than the state as a whole.

Never mind that the funding is doesn't come from public coffers and will be financed entirely by the University. Not everyone understands that. (I'll bet that not everyone at the University understands that.) What outsiders will see is a white elephant at an elitist public school, and they'll resent it.

Get ready for a lot of ignorant talk about how the university doesn't need state funding when it spends $220 million on luxury boxes and raises in-state tuition in the same year.

Maybe I'm wrong, but I don't think Michigan occupies the role in its homestate that Ohio State or Alabama occupy in theirs. There are too many public colleges, and for many of us, Ann Arbor is one step in an exit strategy. Its alumni might move to New York or Chicago and donate to the school, but they don't become the state's governors and senators. In terms of athletics, Michigan State's blue-collar, underdog status gets it a lot of affection.

And at heart, Michigan doesn't exactly think of itself as a public school. Too many of its students come from out of state. Its competition for students and professors are Chicago and Cornell and Northwestern, not Michigan State and Wayne State.

All of which is fine, and better than the alternative. And to reiterate, what I'm worrying about isn't right versus wrong as much as what governs perception.

And I worry that the rest of the state will see this and recoil, in ways that have implications beyond what happens on Saturday.


Aesthetics: There's a 50-50 chance that this behemoth construction project will end up looking like dump. Familiar with the campus's tradition of architectual confusion, the MZone offers its rendition of the likely result:

Looks about right to me.


Secrecy: Personally, my biggest criticism is how this has unfolded behind closed doors. If -- as some people optimistically believe -- the final plans aren't as ambitious as we've been told, Bill Martin would do well to show them to the general public. I think he's a competent athletic director and businessman, but politically he's tone deaf, as last fall's SBC sponsorship fiasco illustrated. Mary Sue Coleman doesn't have deep ties to Michigan. I have no reason to question her judgment, but I still wonder if she knows what she's messing with.

Ultimately, there will be plans and announcements, and token input from the public. In the interim, when most of the information and analysis comes from partisans on either side, the only thing to do is hold your breath.

This is fine for now. No need for any premature announcements. But after today's 5-3 vote, Martin needs to go on a PR offensive. The plans as they currently stand should go public, as well as all of the finances.

My hunch is that there would be less skepticism if they'd been more direct in explaining the process. Keeping it a secret makes people suspect the worst.


Ambition: This is a big-time, bet-your-future gamble, and I'm still not sure why Martin and Coleman are making it. A divided vote by the Board of Regents is as rare as Lloyd going for first down on 4th and 1 at the 30.

Things at that university have a tendency to spin out of control, and its football program is the situs for a lot of irrational passion. One of the dirty open secrets about the University is its governance by a board elected statewide. Some of these members fancy themselves as politicians. A divided Board of Regents was ultimately President Duderstadt's undoing, and by not assembling a plan that could garner a unanimous vote, Martin and Coleman have put a lot at risk. My guess is that Coleman cares about this one-tenth as much as she cares about the Life Sciences Institute, and isn't prepared for the whirlwind that could come out of this.

For what? The added revenues would be welcome, not make-or-break. It would, in the alternative, be break if this plan misfires, either by going overbudget or not meeting Martin's projected revenues.

It makes me think a little of Robert Moses. I hope it turns out to be the good Robert Moses, not the bad Robert Moses.