A Storm Brewing on Washington Street

by Osman Parvez
It was about a year ago when I sat in a workshop directed at buyers of property at the Washington Street School development. I joined an interesting exercise directed at developing a vision for what this community would look like. Although I eventually passed on the project, little did I imagine the storm brewing today.
The development is aimed at turning the former school property into a cohousing community, under the direction of Jim Leach and Wonderland Hills Development Corporation. The project, which gained some preliminary approvals from the City and has been in process for over two years, now seems to be stumbling in the face of organized resistance from neighbors and concerned citizens.

Red shirted resistance, no less..

This is a long post but it should give you some insight into what's happening with regard to this project. It's also a glimpse into how active our community can be around development issues. What follows is (1) a position statement regarding the neighborhood's concerns, (2) a synopsis of recent events, (3) an open letter from Greg Sherwin, a former buyer of property at the development, and (4) a response to the open letter.

Washington School Neighborhood Association
Position Statement Regarding the Washington School Redevelopment

The Washington School Neighborhood Association is a large group of neighbors and friends of the Washington Elementary School building and property. This group came together to enable its collective voice to be heard by the City of Boulder and Boulder Valley School District (BVSD) when we realized that our individual voices were falling on deaf ears.

Despite clear indications that the MOU process was seriously flawed, in particular that the lone remaining applicant had received the least support from the city-appointed Citizens Review Panel, the City and BVSD failed to reconsider whether the process was working effectively. Over the two-year course of the process, members of our neighborhood and community repeatedly expressed their concerns to the City and School District in every appropriate venue, including Planning Board meetings, City Council meetings, Board of Education meetings, and public neighborhood meetings. Yet our government has, to date, “stayed the course”.

We are not opposed to co-housing, nor are we opposed to the redevelopment of the Washington School property. But we are opposed to the specific plan from Wonderland Hill Development Company (WHDC) due to its harmful impacts on the neighborhood, its reliance on numerous exceptions to established codes, and its lack of offsetting benefits for the neighborhood and the greater community. This proposal is not respectful of the site or of the community that has enjoyed over a century of continuous public access and use of the site.
We ask that:

* The City of Boulder inform WHDC that their proposal is unacceptable because it still does not adequately address valid concerns about neighborhood sensitivity and many other issues raised by the Planning Board and the public during preliminary reviews.
* The Boulder Valley School District consider refunding WHDC’s earnest money deposit as the company has already incurred substantial costs while trying to work within government mandates.
* The MOU/RFQ/RFP process should be replaced by a more financially realistic plan that respects the School property, meets the financial goals of the District, and provides true Community Benefit.

In order to achieve these goals, we suggest the following:

* The neighborhood should have direct involvement in soliciting and reviewing new proposals.
* BVSD should be more flexible in its asking price and closing terms in order to avoid compounding the impact on this neighborhood, which has already lost its elementary school.
* The City of Boulder, in light of the emphasis on small neighborhood parks contained in the new Parks and Recreation Master Plan, should consider establishing a pocket park on a portion of the site which has served public recreation needs in North Boulder for generations.
* The City of Boulder should dedicate adequate staff resources to help research and apply for outside financial resources such as Conservation Easements and Historical Rehabilitation Grants.
* The Neighborhood, City, BVSD, and a new developer must work together for a successful project.

While the process that was set in motion two years ago was well-intentioned, it was almost certainly doomed to fail due to the very restrictive purchase terms and the lack of true neighborhood involvement. At any time the process could have been re-evaluated, but the various governmental entities and the developer chose to ignore obvious shortcomings. If WHDC’s plan is allowed to proceed, it will forever damage our neighborhood, and it will fall far short of achieving the original community goals set by BVSD and the City of Boulder.

Here's a great synopsis of recent events written by John Gless, one of the organizers of the Washington School Neighborhood Association. This was posted on a neighborhood forum.
Combining a debrief of Thursday's key meetings with the Daily Camera Editorial Board and BVSD Administration with this week's summary. Another bang-up week with many successes and much useful information gathered.

Events of the WeekMedia:At last week's close, the intrepid band of red-shirted brothers and sisters was bracing for its most significant media coverage to date, which came in last Saturday's Camera. A long, prominent, and balanced piece concluding with Jim Leach's now infamous quote:
"Our whole proposal to the city that they accepted was based on creating a community on the school site," he said. "Now we've got a group of neighbors who have formed their own version of community."
This article stimulated a lively discussion on it's online comment blog and was followed up my no fewer than five(!) letters to the editor.

Keep those letters comin' folks.

School Board:
On Tuesday 40 Red Shirts trekked out to the BVSD Ed. Center to deliver a statement to the School Board and listen carefully for their comments. Two members (Teresa Steele and Pres. Helayne Jones) said the Board had "never discussed" razing Washington School and Superintendent Chris King chatted with us after the meeting to clarify further that:

BVSD has never demolished a historic building (and they are taking a lot of heat for proposing to demolish Casey in order to rebuild it) BVSD doesn't want to spend money to demolish Washington BVSD thinks Washington property is worth more with than without the building BVSD doesn't have sufficient "political capital" to demolish, and there wouldn't be much/any benefit for them anyway.
The Camera reported the School Board meeting and Board Member comments in Wednesday's Local Briefs
All of this effectively undermines all of Wonderland's (and City staff and board) threats that without their proposal the school would be bulldozed. Nobody else seriously believed this but nobody previously bothered to even ask BVSD. It also significantly undermines their Historic Preservation "community benefit" because the building would survive in virtually every conceivable scenario, and could certainly be restored and have its views preserved more sensitively than Wonderland's proposal.

Daily Camera Editorial Board:
On Thursday morning Fred Rubin and I were joined by Mapleton neighbors Catherine Schweiger, Liz Payton, and Randi Stroh and by all-around neighborhood/environmental/pro-democracy activist Sarah Silver to meet with the Camera's Ed. Board, which consists of Editorial Page Editor Clint Talbott, Editor in Chief Kevin Kaufman and three citizen members: Steve Pomerance (a very energetic and outspoken former city councilman), Jody Sarbaugh (a dear old friend of mine and the mother of a classmate and friend all the way from Washington through Boulder High), and another older gentleman who didn't say much and whose name I didn't catch.

We made our case for the flawed process and result at Washington and tied that into the expanded frustrations felt by citizens in neighborhoods all over the city surrounding inconsistent (and too loose) application of development regulations, and the lack of effective opportunities for citizen input in the whole development review and policy arena. We also spent a fair amount of time tying these things into this fall's City Council election. Our reception was incredibly good and Mr. Kaufman did press us on some things (admitting that he was playing devil's advocate). I am certain the Camera will editorialize on these things (perhaps more than once) and I expect these editorials to be favorable. Mr. Pomerance seemed particularly motivated to do something, possibly through back-channels he has with current Council members. At any rate, he asked for and received background materials from us. A great way to spend the morning.

BVSD Administration
Then on Thursday afternoon Fred and I met with Superintendent Chris King and Facilities Manager Don Orr. We acknowledged that we are now working at crossed purposes (they want the sale with Wonderland to go through and we don't), but we kept emphasizing that if Wonderland is denied, the neighborhood wants to quickly put together some kind of proposal from a mixture of possible resources that would ultimately lead to an acceptable offer on the property. Just enough to give us an option while we work out the details. We asked for their patience (not long, just 2 or 3 months) to allow this to happen.

We pointed out a few of the reasons why they should consider this an attractive option:

The market value will decline if Wonderland is denied, and the number of potential buyers will decline. A buyer not endorsed by the neighborhood will face a much steeper climb to get development approval. They closed the school, put us and themselves through this horror show, so they "owe" us something.

They seemed to grudgingly accept the first two points, but not the third. They see their only responsibility as the entire collection of students and parents in the system, and basically could give a rip about one neighborhood. Not in a mean way, just a kind of cold bureaucratic way. They are going to try to get as much as they can in the marketplace. That's fine, I just hope we can cobble together the best offer. The biggest thing all of us can do together is keep growing and doing what we're doing because it will tend to scare off the competition.

Another interesting tidbit helped explain why Jim Leach keeps saying that the city has "already approved" his project. Apparently BVSD is (was) also under this mistaken impression, because someone(s) at the City (don't know who) implied that whoever came through the RFP/Citizen Review process would get smooth sailing during development review. Of course, we had to point out the key missing piece that the process was supposed to be competitive, and since it wasn't, choppy seas were forecast well in advance. It still just blows my mind how so many otherwise intelligent government employees and elected office holders could all so completely fail to comprehend this one thing, while all of us neighbors "get it" so easily. Anyway, they had no comebacks on that one.

At meetings end, I asked if they would consider writing the City a letter clarifying the whole demolition thing. I pointed out that it isn't good for government bodies in collaboration to not reveal their intentions on key issues. Don Orr tried to suggest that the demolition rumor probably came from our neighborhood, but I assured him that it came from both the City and Wonderland because they are the only ones wielding it like a club over us. Chris, to his credit, said they would take it under advisement but that it's a delicate thing for them to get involved without appearing to take sides. He seemed a little more convinced when I said that BVSD would be knowingly taking sides by allowing false speculation to go unchallenged when BVSD could easily issue a clarification. I asked him to inform us about what decision they make, and will follow up. I expect that we'll be hearing a lot less about tearing down the school based on what the Board already said anyway, but something more definitive, and truthful, would be nice.

Boulder "Federation of Neighborhoods"
As you all know, Washington has become a catalyst for many people in other neighborhoods who share many of frustrations over process and incompatible developments. Our participation in an effort to give these frustrations a harmonious voice helps us by bringing in allies and helps our allies by giving them nothing less than a shining example of what can be accomplished when ordinary folks stand up for themselves against the nebulous forces that don't understand and maybe don't even care how they affect people's lives in their own homes.

You should all be extremely proud to be part of the "incredible group" doing an "amazing job of generating public support" (this is what people are actually saying about us). Anyway, there will be more on this front later.

Upcoming Events
Next Letter to City Council
Another in our series of letters to Council will be drafted by early next week and sent around for review/comment/signatures. This one will focus on Community Benefits - specifically critiquing where Wonderland has gone in (not) fulfilling the official RFP/MOU benefits and all of the other benefits they have recently been inventing for themselves in order to justify themselves. Please watch for it and sign.

Candidate Forums
Fairly soon, all the candidates for seats on the new council will be scurrying around for votes and we as Washington and as a member of the Federation of Neighborhoods need to make ourselves present and heard. If anyone hears about any forums please forward details so they may be distributed to the list.

More Letters!
Keep writing to the Camera, Boulder Weekly, Colorado Daily, etc. Let me know if you need a topic or some talking points. Also, keep an eye out for an expected trickle at least of "blow back" letters against us. It's really surprising there haven't been any yet, but we must be ready with rebuttals.

Sorry for the longer than normal summary, I hope most of you read down this far. Oh, and there seems to be something different about the fence around the school, does that have anything to do with us? ;-)

A few days ago, Greg Sherwin, a friend (and experienced real estate investor), wrote this open letter...
Dear Washington School Neighbors,

Community benefits…..political will……power…preservation….all ingredients in the stew pot of discontent and hope that seem to surround the Washington School Community development proposal these days. This letter is an offering of support and hope for all of the secular community interests (e.g. the neighborhood, the School Board, the city government, the developer, and the new cohousing community members, etc.) that, proactively combined, have the opportunity to serve the highest good of our Boulder community and this planet. This possibility alone excites me and inspires this open letter to you.

Below are some proactive solutions and opportunities to the Washington School challenge that you might be interested in considering. If you are interested in who is writing to you, you can scroll down to the last part of this letter.


1. WALK YOUR TALK TO PRESERVE THE PARK: In meetings with you, neighbors, in public hearings and communications, I have been hearing more about what you are against than about what you are creatively in support of. More particularly, I have not heard much about what you, as neighbors, are willing to offer as positive contributions to this Boulder community democratic process. For example, if there are 100 of you, are you each willing to donate perhaps, $10,000 each, (i.e.,1 million dollars), to have the east side 6 lots kept as a park. Even $5,000 or $1,000 from each of you would help validate you good intentions and good will. If the total value of these six lots is perhaps 2-3 million dollars, than you would have a more powerful and influential request for the city to pay the balance out of it’s parks and/or open space funds. Perhaps, then, the developer and BVSD would also be inspired or persuaded to contribute something toward this park purchase.

2. PROJECT DESIGN CHANGES: With some cooperation and financial latitude from the city, it’s historic preservation folks and/or the BVSD, perhaps the Wonderland developers could afford to convert the historic, one story, old library into a two story townhouse (or 1 or 2 units) while preserving some of the historic exterior of the original structure. Why do this? In exchange, perhaps the developer could then afford to create a similar, or better, one story, public use building, about the size of the lost library space, on the north east corner of the property. This reduced height would preserve sun light and some privacy for the most affected, south facing neighbors just to the north of this north east corner. Easy? No. Doable? Maybe.

3. PARKING, as you have well noted, is already a problem. While living in Aspen, where skiers and tourists continuously parked in the neighborhoods, the problem was successfully solved by the city instituting residential neighborhood parking permits for anyone who lived there and wanted to park more than 2 hours on the neighborhood streets.

Beyond that intervention, even Boulder city government officials have unofficially acknowledged that the current parking requirements unreasonably high and were not intended for this area. The parking spaces offered by the developer. would meet other similar neighborhood zoning requirements. For example, at Gold Run condos we are given only one parking space per unit, regardless of the number of bedrooms in each unit. The Washington Village development proposal offers many more parking spaces than one per unit, to accommodate visitors and guests. The elders and other community members who live here will have less needs for extra cars. Why hold the developer hostage for a problem that belongs with the city and it’s zoning and parking laws? Why isn’t the city responding to this, already proposed idea, with proactive immediately achievable solutions?

4. FINDING NEW COMMUNITY PARTNERS: Has anyone thought of contacting the Boulder Valley Hospital (BVH) to do a joint venture to create nearby housing for its many employees? Perhaps affordable housing priority could be first offered by the city and developer to qualified nearby hospital workers so that they wouldn’t be parking on the neighborhood streets. Perhaps, in return, BVH could pay for their prorata share of the land, building and common area costs for this affordable housing allocation to take some of the financial pressure off of the developer.

5. DENSITY: Some of you have voiced complaints about the density of the cohousing portion of this project and the enclosed court yard aspect of this design. Increased density is probably a reality for this property according to current zoning.

I hope that you will look beyond the proposed density to the historic success of cohousing communities all over Boulder, Colorado, the United States and beyond, in bringing many positive contributions to the experience of community to their neighbors through their proactive community attitudes and through sharing their community common houses with the larger community for community functions.

6. PRIVACY: As to the proposed semi-enclosed but public court yard, I ask many of you to look at your own yards with fences and hedges around them that preserve your privacy. This creates a safer space for your children and grandchildren to play. This cohousing interest is no different than many of your interests…..especially when next to this very busy street.

7. NEIGHBORHOOD INTEREST MEETS THE BROADER BOULDER COMMUNITY INTEREST: Are you showing concern about the larger, quality of life, Boulder needs and mandates for sustainable community that we, by our vote, have given the Boulder city government to….

a) reduce auto traffic downtown by allowing more living density in it’s urban areas along high traffic and high public transport corridors?
b) provide more affordable public gathering space to supports the arts and culture of Boulder?
c) preserve the historic feel of Boulder?
d) create more elder-friendly housing in Boulder that is close to hospitals, etc. (e.g. 21 units in the project)
e) provide more environmentally friendly construction (The cohousing community voted to spend more for this).
f) provide more affordable, sustainable urban housing so that downtown Boulder isn’t just a home for the wealthy (e.g. the new Brownstones and the $600+ per sq. ft. downtown condos.) Washington Village is providing 6 to 8 more affordable units than are required.
g) encourage the use of public transportation, sharing cars and walking or bicycling vs. cars. Co-housing communities are well known for doing this naturally as a community preference. They support each other.

The current development proposal is helping to achieve all of these community-wide, larger-than-neighborhood, needs.

Which of these larger community needs are you willing to sacrifice to achieve your more limited neighborhood needs? Which of these larger community needs to you believe will be lost if Wonderland Hills gives up on this project and another developer steps in? How do you believe that you will be better off having another developer replace Wonderland Hills?

Are you waiting for a wealthy benefactor to step in, buy it and donate it as a park and arts and crafts center? The Boulder city government has already spent a year and our tax payer money to solicit for such a wealthy benefactor to show up. None was willing to make the financial leap. The only player left standing after that year was Wonderland Hills Development. I believe that they have already financially stretched themselves to meet the city’s “community benefit” requirements. If Wonderland fails, the subsequent developers won’t have to go through such a challenging and demanding additional city “What’s the community benefit” process. When and if the BVSD is finally able to enter into direct, arms length negotiations with a buyer/developer without the city to act as a negotiating buffer, our lovely school house may be on the negotiating block for potential destruction, regardless of what BVSD has said or not said up to this point. Have you heard BVSD say that they won’t destroy the old school building and/or or library under any sales circumstances?

Sometimes, the developer you know is better than the developer that you don’t know. The one you know has been around this community for a long time and done good “community-benefit” projects during this time.


I, too, am an interested Boulder citizen, who is perhaps in the unique position of neutrality after having been, until recently, actively involved as a potential Washington Village community member since the beginning of this cohousing project. I wanted to live there. Disagreements with Wonderland Hills over their financial structure, their community building philosophy and the rising costs of the market rate units in this project led to my withdrawal, recently, from this community living opportunity. In the past 2 years, I attended most of the public hearings and community meetings that have surrounded this project, although not the last one.

I have no particular loyalty to this developer. I challenged Wonderland Hills on some of their financial decisions and learned to respect their other financially driven decisions and constraints. While disagreeing with some of their philosophy, I also learned a great deal from their extensive cohousing community building experience that I am taking into my own community building efforts. From what I learned about Wonderland Hills financial situation, because of the cost of the land, the cost of the restoration of much of the old school for community/public space and the market rate unit number financial constraints put on them by Boulder School Board and the city, this developer may have very little latitude, at this point, to be flexible to design changes that may satisfy anyone else’s community interests…..regardless of what this community minded developer might otherwise be willing to do. Furthermore, as cohousing developers, they appear to operate with less profit margin to compensate themselves for unknown risks than typical developers. As they say, you can’t squeeze blood out of a stone.

For those who don’t know me, I, briefly, have lived and owned property in Boulder for 12 years. I am actively retired. I like Boulder…..a lot. One of my careers has been real estate sales and property management for 25 years. In the past few years I have visited or stayed at 55 cohousing and intentional communities. I attended at least one community meeting at most of these communities. I want to live in Boulder community with you….in an honest and proactive way.

Being a person who has, in the past, felt powerlessness and responded passively in the face of the political process and will of governmental forces to pursue it’s objectives, I feel compassion for the plight of you neighbors to have your interests be really heard and given consideration. I admire your success in building support for your neighborhood desires.

Being a local landlord, I learned about the effort that it took to move from passivity to becoming politically active so that there was a fair representation of more than one community interest in the political process. I learned what it to felt like and what it took to be actively against something that I opposed. While temporarily empowering, it was mostly not very nurturing.

Then, finally, I learned more about how to look for proactive solutions that benefited not only my cause, but also the causes of the people and organizations that I was being oppositional to. This, I believe, was the hardest, and yet most satisfying, choice to pursue. Success is in no way guaranteed. So, consistent with this third choice of participation in the process, I have offered the above mentioned suggestions. I hope that you will bring more attention to this third possibility without looking to the city, the developer, or BVSD to come forward with all of your solutions.

Please circulate this letter to all of your neighborhood participants.

I believe that you, being actively involved, are bringing positive possibilities to our larger community political process. I am inspired by your efforts. I am grateful that we all have the freedom to engage in this, sometimes messy, community process.

Forgive me if I have missed important considerations regarding this project and process. Mostly, I hope that my ideas will inspire more proactive, creative communication in service to everyone’s interests.

I wish you well.

Greg Sherwin
To which John responded...

Wow, Greg, thanks for taking the time to put this together. There is much here that I (and I believe most other neighbors) would agree with, and some that I (we) don't. I can't take the time right now to offer my point by point support/rebuttal, but I do want to comment on a couple things:


I agree that it's somewhat less complicated and definitely less satisfying to try to kill a project than to build one. We have had many discussions and virtual visioning workshops about what we would like to happen (or tolerate) on the site and we briefly considered coming up with an alternative plan as a "way out" for the various parties. The problem with that right now is that any alternative from us has no standing with the various regulatory bodies, there isn't enough time to do it justice, and it diverts too much of our attention away from opposing the plan that is on the table, which we believe has very little positive (greater) community benefit, and very strong net-negative benefits for our neighborhood.  Rest assured, however, that if we are successful we are prepared to devote plenty of effort into bringing forth a viable neighbor-endorsed plan that will depend as little as possible on meddling from the City or BVSD. Had we been able to see where this was going to go 18 or 24 months ago, we would have gladly concentrated all of our efforts into constructive pursuits. Our big mistake was thinking that government understood our situation, or would at least listen when we tried repeatedly to explain, and in the end would make some effort to honor the intent of plainly worded policies and regulations that are meant to protect neighborhoods and existing property owners from severe and destabilizing impacts.

Had Mr. Leach given us even the remotest indication of willingness to actually mitigate these impacts (instead of just downplaying them and treating us like we really don't understand our own neighborhood), or to work on some kind of compromise that would bring in some other funding to provide something for the neighborhood while alleviating some of his financial constraints, the majority of us would have welcomed the opportunity to cooperate. Instead, Mr. Leach has operated all along on the assumption that his proposal, as the sole survivor (not the winner, but by virtue of the others forfeiting), had been endorsed and anointed by government and that the rest of development review was simply a formality. This gave him no incentive whatsoever to compromise, and in fact nearly all the changes made to the original plan (not very many) have resulted in greater neighborhood impacts and less community benefit.

Financial Constraints and Viability

As a former real estate professional, I'm sure you would find it unusual for a motivated seller (BVSD) to tack an extra $700k on the city's appraisal, add a bunch of deed restrictions and covenants, require various other community benefits to be satisfied, make the 10% earnest money non-refundable, demand closing before even beginning regulatory review, and then put it out there for a take it or leave it price. Even though Wonderland got BVSD to relax the closing date after the fact, the price is clearly too high as evidenced by the declining community benefits (e.g. middle income affordable units reduced from 15 to 5) and the increased asking price for the market rate units. Still, Wonderland believes they can make a go of it as long as they aren't required to fully address legitimate neighbor concerns and they get all of the variances and other regulatory relief they have asked for. As Planning Board acting chair Shull said at the July 19 hearing, it's as though BVSD has imposed a tax on this neighborhood by a setting a price that can only be paid by overdeveloping the site beyond anything that would be reasonably in character with or not severely impact the neighborhood.

If the neighbors succeed, the competitive market price will most certainly go down and give a neighbor-backed plan a much better shot. If some other developer bids higher, they will be faced with a highly aware, active, and aroused group that is unlikely to passively endorse any exceptions to what would be allowed on the property by right and without any zoning changes. While we would prefer to control our own destiny, there is no doubt that by right development would be less impactful than what Wonderland proposes. As for the historic building, BVSD will never say categorically that under no circumstances would they ever raze it. But they acknowledge that a) they've never discussed it, b) they've never done it to one of their "surplus" historic buildings in the past, c) they are already taking a tremendous amount of heat for suggesting that they could demolish all of the Casey building (whose facade has been compromised with a 35 year old addition), d) they don't want to spend any money to demolish anything, e) they think the property is worth more with than without the building, and f) even if they had the political capital needed to commit such an egregious act (they realize they do not), there is nothing to gain. So the neighborhood is not worried about losing the school building. In fact, by basically encasing it inside large buildings on three sides and chopping the inside up into residences, to us Wonderland's plan is basically the same to the neighbors as a partial demolition.

Anyway, I really appreciate your willingness to correspond and your expression of admiration for the neighborhood sticking up for itself. Pretty much all we ask is to be heard after being either shut out or ignored in the entire process up until now. One the good things about Boulder is there are a lot of smart and caring people here, but one of the bad things is that some think they are so smart and caring that they know what's best for everyone. What we have found is that neighborhoods like ours that are full of people who have lived in them a long time know their own neighborhoods better than any outside expert ever could. They also have a much better sense of how their neighborhood's fit into the larger civic enterprise and how they can best contribute to that enterprise. We aren't selfish and we aren't NIMBY (I thank you for not accusing us of that, but others have), but we also aren't willing to passively sacrifice the heart, identity, character, and stability of our neighborhood for a cup full of broader community benefits - especially when the broader community will hardly even notice. Our neighborhood school was killed, and now it seems like all sorts of far-flung community benefit constituencies just want to come feed off the carcass. If every neighborhood in Boulder made the effort to become as vocal and cohesive as ours has, it would certainly be a more democratic place, and I think that means, by definition, a better place.

I will pass along your sentiments to our group,

image: Xerones

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