A Local’s Rant on Density

by on December 23, 2013 · 14 comments

in Culture, Economy, Environment, History, Ocean Beach

voltaire n catalina new graphic

The artist’s conception of project being built at Voltaire and Catalina.

By Geoff Page / Special Rant for OB Rag

There was a time, believe it or not, when it wasn’t considered desirable to live at the ocean.

The cultural attitude about being near the ocean, and how one spent time at the ocean, was very different from today’s attitude. Places evolve, sometimes unexpectedly.

Las Vegas is a perfect example, it used to be undesirable desert landscape and look at it now.

To get an idea of what folks used to think about the ocean, look at some of the older homes along Sunset Cliffs. Many of these homes have no, or very little, deck or balcony space and take no advantage of the open ocean air. Contrast that with the newer places that have as much balcony or deck space as possible. Times have changed and attitudes about living at the ocean have changed.

One of the drawbacks to living at the ocean for some people in the past was the small homes on the small lots. Many of the smaller beach homes were never intended for year round residency, they were more like vacation cottages.

Inland you could have a much bigger home on a much bigger lot. As the culture changed and living near the ocean developed into something very much desired, people began to come here bringing the bigger house attitudes. Other people moved here from cities and brought dense city sensibilities. Some of these people wanted to live at the ocean because it had cachet; many of these people never set foot in the ocean or on the beach.

Pretty soon, the pressure of development began to be felt and it continues unabated. Land values shot up and now beach property is a good investment, one only has to see how much better beach property fared when the real estate bubble burst to see that. The only answer to this pressure is to increase density to its maximum and that is changing, ruining some might say, the quality of life that beachside folks cherish. Density doesn’t just mean more people, it also means more building and less open space on lots.

The recent article in the OB Rag about the project on the corner of Catalina and Voltaire is an example of how to increase density.

The project falls into one of the newer favorite development styles called “mixed-use.” This type of development is now being sold to the public as eco-friendly, encouraging the “village” concept and emphasizing walkability.

Most of these developments are missing the one key “village” component, places to work, that the concept needs to be successful.

The problem with this particular project is as much its proximity to three other, larger mixed-use developments planned for the immediate area as anything else. One project on the same block is a much bigger mixed-use project planned for the old House of Hui site and the empty lot next door, another even bigger project is planned for the old Dominoe’s Pizza site directly across the street, and another is planned for the current site of Sunshine Liquor.

All mixed-use, village, walkability plans with no places to work dumping traffic and sewage into the infrastructure that can barely handle the existing population. If you deign to criticize this style of development, you may be accused of being anti-environment and not being a progressive thinking person.

Mixed-use is one way to increase density.

Then, there are the guest quarters and companion units. In the past, there some were restrictions on these units, albeit poorly enforced. These units were supposed to be for family and guests originally.

Guest quarters are not allowed to be rented out but the only way this is ever enforced is when a private citizen calls Code Enforcement, which most people balk at doing.

As for companion units, as long as the owner of record lives in one, the other may be rented. How often do you think the City polices that one? And why was this ever allowed in areas zoned for single-family residences? If you have a rented companion unit on your property along with a primary residence, you have a duplex, not a single-family residence.

But, at least there were some restrictions that limited the numbers of these units. These restrictions were important because these units are quietly turning our single-family zoned areas into multi-family zones. Some key restrictions have recently been removed.

Last week, there was a great article in the Reader about a group called the Code Monitoring Team. The title of the article is “The City’s Code Monitoring Team: foxes guarding the henhouse” by Dorian Hargrave. This article illustrates beautifully the institutional problem San Diego has with land development.

This group is packed with people representing the development industry. Many of the same people in this group were involved in the 7th update to of the land development code adopted in August 2011. The names represent a roster of developers, land use attorneys, and lobbyists for the development and building industry.

Here are just two of the changes in the 7th update of the land development code that affected companion units and guest cottages, sections that got quite a rewrite:

§141.0302 – Companion Units

A companion unit is an allowed accessory to a single dwelling unit in compliance with Section 141.0302. The amendment would remove the requirement for double the minimum lot size and the restriction that limits concurrent development of a primary dwelling unit and companion unit. The amendment would also clarify that the property owner is required to live onsite in either the primary dwelling unit or the companion unit. The amendments are consistent with the City’s adopted Housing Element Implementation Chart, which identifies a need to promote ministerial approval of companion units consistent with State Law. (Author’s emphasis)

The removal of the lot size requirement opened up any lot for one of these second units in areas zoned for single-family homes. This was a key limiting factor. And, instead of these being units that property owners added onto their lots, the new code now allows a home and a companion unit to be built at the same time. This means single-family zoned lots may be developed with two units and sold as such. We will see older homes knocked down now and lots rebuilt in this manner with no zoning change.

How will the City inspect these projects to ensure the owner of record is actually living on the property? They won’t.

141.0306 Guest Quarters/Habitable Accessory Buildings

Clarifies regulations applicable to habitable accessory buildings, which can be used for living or sleeping purposes similar to guest quarters. (Examples include home offices, game rooms or pool cabanas.) Regulates as a separately regulated use regardless of what the building is labeled by the designer, and removes the existing parking requirement and tree requirement for new habitable buildings accessory to a single dwelling unit. (author’s emphasis)

The parking requirement was the key limiting factor and it was removed. It now much easier to build these units in areas zoned for a single-family residences. And they are being built everywhere and used as income units. They are supposed to be built without kitchens to discourage making them rentals but as the inspector rides off into the sunset after final inspection, the contractor is pulling up to put that kitchen in. Unless a neighbor calls Code Enforcement, no one will ever know. I’ve seen these built with separate electric meters, which is a clear indication they will be rentals.

More people and more cars straining our roads and our sewage system. For me, the almost unfettered allowance of these types of units is the single biggest threat to the quality of life in Pt. Loma and Ocean Beach.

OB Newport 7-16-13 SantaMonicaEbers02Another example of increasing density can be seen at the corner of Santa Monica and Ebers in Ocean Beach. There used to be a large old wood building there for years that served as a preschool. A few years ago the property sold and the new development entity planned to build four homes. It turned out that the old building sat astride four 25-foot wide lots. The first attempt to develop the lots apparently failed because the project wasn’t built, the property went up for sale, and the recession hit. It came back.

The Santa Monica and Ebers project is half built, two of four planned units are for sale. The width of the units is 18 feet. That’s only 18 feet wide, four of these. In order to build these four skinny homes the City had to grant variances. Here is the reasoning for one of the variances, reducing the Ebers street side yard setback from 10 feet to 5 feet from the Report to the Hearing Officer:

Variance:

Previous variances have been granted for encroachments into the required yards to properties immediately to the south (1917 Ebers), which currently observes a zero-foot street side setback where 10 feet is required, therefore, 5 feet will be in line with the current development pattern along the block.

Let me interject here to say that the property referred to as having a zero foot setback is an old property, probably built long before the current setback regulations were put into place. The City offered no substantiation that this older property ever received variances of any kind. The setback revisions over the years were implemented to prevent building in this manner. To say that “5 feet will be in line with the current development pattern” is a gross extrapolation. The report continues with this:

There are other properties within the vicinity that appear to have street side and/or front setbacks less than 10 feet.

Let me interject again. First, the issue was the street side yard setback, the front setback was not an issue. Second, I defy anyone to find anything in the immediate vicinity that has a setback less than 10 feet. Notice that no other addresses were given for these “other properties?” The report continued:

Due to the existing constraints of the site, special circumstances can be found that are unique and unusual to this site that would create a hardship in constructing the new dwelling unit.

“Special circumstances?” These are four symmetrical lots 25 feet wide on a very gentle slope. There are no special circumstances relating to the land itself, the special circumstances were only that the project the developer wanted to build would not fit so instead of adjusting the project aspirations, the City granted variances to setback requirements that were intended to preserve space. The site was simply not conducive to cramming in four units without the City’s agreement and the City agreed.

I spent a number of years on the Peninsula Community Planning Board and heard many requests for variances for private residences.

There was usually a sad story about an ailing mother or father that the applicant wanted to accommodate and desperately needed development variances for. One applicant wanted to build a third story and add substantially to the allowable floor area that was already at its maximum, to have a place for an ailing mom. When asked why mom could not be accommodated somewhere on the 1,700 square foot ground floor, the answer was that this wasn’t feasible. More feasible would be to allow the extra square footage.

What would happen when mom passed on, would the extra footage be removed? Of course not. I asked time after time why people didn’t either scale back their plan for something that would not fit on the lot they had without variances from the rest of us or why they didn’t find a property that would accommodate their needs without variances. I usually got dirty looks as if I was a cold, heartless person, not one who was trying to protect the rest of the community or even just trying to get people to adhere to the code requirements.

In addition to the street side setback variance, all of the Santa Monica and Ebers lots were granted the following variance:

The new garage to observe a zero foot side yard setback whereas a 3-foot setback is required on the east side of the property.

Where was the benefit to Ocean Beach for these variances? If the code had not been relaxed, maybe only two or three units could have been built and open space preserved.

OB WestPtLoma 5100blk Douma bestAnother famous project that the Ocean Beach community fought to no avail was the three story skinny house that went up overlooking the beach parking lot at the end of Voltaire. This is density by building size and footprint.

Where once a one-story set of concrete block duplexes sat now stands a three story tall home that was only able to be constructed after the City granted a host of variances. One more has gone up since and a third is being built right now.

Because these lots are in a multi-family zone, the floor area ratio allowed for the home is much higher than it would be in an RS-1 zone. Additionally, the allowable setbacks are reduced; this is another issue that is causing us all to lose space. This allows for large homes on lots with much less landscape and yard space than would be required of the same home on an RS-1 lot. In this case, people have argued it reduced density from two units to one but these homes are expensive and the owners arguably bring as many people and cars as the duplexes did.

The problem with this development pocket is that soon that whole stretch will be a wall of these tall skinny, expensive units that could not have been built without the City’s complicity.

There is another one of these big homes built on a multi-family lot that the architect said was to be their dream house residence. It is now for sale and it is three bedrooms and three bathrooms. This will make an ideal rental with that configuration.

Then, there is the sad story of the project being built adjacent to the parking lot at the main lifeguard tower. The City sold the developer two alleys, one running east and west on the north side of the parking lot and one running north and south on the east side of the little park. The price? $50,000. The City gave up a golden opportunity to increase the size of the little parking lot on one side and to increase the size of the little park on the other for a mere pittance. And, had this not happened, maybe the project being built would have had to be scaled back somewhat.

Finally, there are the community plans. Ocean Beach just ratified its new plan.

The Pt. Loma plan is almost 30 years old. The community plans are supposed to be a development guide describing what the community wants to look like. The problem is that these plans are not part of the Municipal Code and are unenforceable. The City plan reviewers do not consider them. If a developer, or a home owner building a home, wants to ignore the plans, they can, and many do.

So, what to do? Be aware. Get involved. Pay attention to what is proposed to be built and what you see being built. Ask questions. Without diligence from everyone, one day you’ll wake up and realize you can’t move on our streets and you can’t see the sun anymore because of all this unfettered density development. That’s my rant.

Geoff Page is a Peninsula activist and former member of the Peninsula Community Planning Board.

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Debra December 23, 2013 at 12:46 pm

I agree, it’s beginning to look more and more like Mission Beach around here and not in a good way. (AND it would have been nice, had there been some type of prior notification that *NO RIGHT TURN ON RED LIGHT* would be allowed at the Catalina Southbound and Voltaire intersection).

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avatar PLTC rez December 25, 2013 at 10:10 am

I completely agree about the sign! Furthermore it is causing nothing but a traffic jam. This needs to be resolved with recalculated lights or install a walk signal separate from the traffic signal. If feeling safer to cross the street at that light was the solution, something else needs to be the solution.

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avatar Geoff Page December 28, 2013 at 3:23 pm

I would hazard a guess that the new turn restriction and the new project are related.

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avatar Steve December 23, 2013 at 1:57 pm

I disagree with the Las Vegas analogy. I don’t see the similarities at all.

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avatar da john December 23, 2013 at 3:57 pm

Geoff, good points and I agree with you on all the projects in ocean beach. I also think what happened with the project next to the life guard tower is a shame.

I think you should point out the project on Voltaire and Catalina is built on Mixed use zoned land, almost exactly to the intent of the municipal code. The current peninsula community calls for the same: “Encourage mixed use development that incorporates housing with commercial and office uses within the Roseville and Voltaire commercial districts. “

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avatar Geoff Page December 28, 2013 at 4:59 pm

The area along Voltaire is designated CN in the Peninsula Community Plan. CN is “Commercial – Neighborhood” and is described as follows in the Municipal Code:

§131.0502 – Purpose of the CN (Commercial–Neighborhood) Zones

(a) The purpose of the CN zones is to provide residential areas with access to a
limited number of convenient retail and personal service uses. The CN zones
are intended to provide areas for smaller scale, lower intensity developments
that are consistent with the character of the surrounding residential areas. The
zones in this category may include residential development. Property within
the CN zones will be primarily located along local and selected collector
streets.

Notice it says “smaller scale, lower intensity developments?” None of the four developments I’ve mentioned along this strip conform to that description. And, yes, you quoted the Peninsula Community Plan correctly, but I would suggest this could also mean a mix of commercial and residential along the strip, not necessarily piled on top of each other three stories high.

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avatar jim grant December 23, 2013 at 9:34 pm

Everybody loves open space.
Until they have the chance to sell open space and make a good profit.
Then move on up the hill to a bigger house with more open space.

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avatar Seth December 25, 2013 at 12:04 am

With you in spirit, but a few points and/or disagreements…

SANDAG projections have San Diego County adding about a million new residents over a 20-30 year period. The pressure to develop is enormous, and it is imperative that as much new development as possible is steered towards already developed areas in order to mitigate traffic and sprawl.

OB and Point Loma have already won the war on this. With small lot sizes, height limits and restrictive FARs in neighborhoods that are already built out, there really isn’t much opportunity for density to increase on a wide scale. Certainly some, as with redevelopment at Liberty Station or even the FAR variance issue in North OB, but an 8-unit mixed-use project in a commercial zone at Catalina and Voltaire? Not that familiar with that one, but not seeing it at first glance. The challenge for our neighborhoods will not be increased density so much as increased regional traffic.

You have framed mixed-use as a trojan horse for developer profit, which it can be, but as someone who has lived in Socal for nearly a decade after living in Boston, SF, Vancouver and other cities, I find it preposterous that there are only a smattering of places in Socal where you can have basic services and amenities within walking distance of most residences, and even more preposterous that there is almost no effective public public transit for 90% of urban residents here. Implementation is one thing, but don’t agree with characterizing smart growth principles like mixed-use, transit-oriented development, walkability, (most) density, transportation and housing choice as some sort of bad thing or developer playground. It’s essential that this region adopt those principles for any number of reasons, and to their credit, I think the planners in the region have tried to. Having mom and pop businesses and fiscally-viable public transportation requires a critical mass and enough customers/riders nearby, and smart growth in general really does help to create livable, walkable, vibrant communities. In smart growth terms, Ocean Beach gets that right, and the area by this project does not.

As you stated, at the end of the day, you cannot really dictate what people do with their properties beyond the basic code. Community planning is a tenuous tool in the development process. These planning groups can and should hold the line on the big fights, like the FAR variances being granted on West Point Loma in OB. I don’t doubt that similar worthy fights exist in the Peninsula planning area.

Other projects contain lesser fights and discretionary considerations, and require a little more push and pull and massaging towards desirable outcomes, or at least less bad ones. Perhaps the Catalina and Voltaire project is one. As someone who sat on the OBPB during them, I would say that the Santa Monica and Ebers project you mentioned fit this classification, as did the Saratoga an Abbott project mentioned by dajohn in the comments. Unlike the West Point Loma FAR variances that could have allowed for an extra 500 bedrooms to be built in North OB, neither of these projects had anything to density, IMO.

I’ve commented on the Saratoga and Abbott one at length on this blog, so I will stick to the Santa Monica and Ebers project here. The bottom line is that they could have built an inferior project according to code with little to no variances. Just much more smooshed together, for lack of a better term. They were willing to work with us, and we were willing to work with them. Not an activist approach, and one can definitely argue the precedent being set by the minimal setback variances being granted. But I would say the following. To a large extent, the entire point of the community planning groups is for a variety of interests to come together over some discretionary issue or issues and work out reasonable solutions that work for everyone and the community at large.

We were also not looking at FAR or parking variances there, and as you say the lots were a bit narrow. I don’t know that I would call them substandard, per se, but the setback requirements were probably more prohibitive for them than “normal-sized” lots in the same zone. That’s a tricky proposition, because the applicant can argue that they are being held to a more restrictive standard than their neighbors. This was a major part of Stebbins’ argument, as far as I understand it, as he ended up with a de facto FAR of 0.54 and not 0.7. At the end of the day, the applicant and Board came up with some adjustments at Santa Monica and Ebers that granted minimal setback variances while moving the structures off of the front yard and a garage on the eastern-most property off of the property line.

With that project and the Saratoga and Abbott one, I don’t think there was some big war to win. A more activist approach would have likely resulted in lesser projects IMO, either by forcing the applicant to stick to the code and smoosh a bunch of narrow buildings together at Santa Monica and Ebers, or by compelling them to appeal and get whatever variances they were looking for, without concession or community input (both projects). I had worries the CVS fight could have led to something like this, where the only viable tenant was chased out, and the property owner was then forced to sell to some developer that threw up some massive 30-unit mixed-use monstrosity.

In sum, I do applaud you for bringing further attention to these issues, even if I don’t agree right down the line on them.

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avatar Geoff Page December 30, 2013 at 10:14 am

Seth,
Some very thoughtful commentary that I think was good for others to read as it explained the process in more detail.

You mentioned that you didn’t see how an 8-unit development makes much of a difference but if you recall, I explained that three more, much larger developments are planned, one on the same block and one across the street. When you aggregate all of these plus the one across the Nimitz overpass bridge, there will be a definite impact.
“The challenge for our neighborhoods will not be increased density so much as increased regional traffic.” Density brings traffic, it’s kind of the chicken or the egg thing.

I’d have to take objection to the statement that I framed this as a Trojan horse for developers. The Trojan horse was concealed trickery; this is not because they are no doing anything underhanded.

In order to compare Boston, San Francisco, Vancouver and other cities to San Diego, you’ll need to be more specific. Pt. Loma is largely residential; it is not a downtown city area. Most residential areas don’t have these things within walking distance of every home because, well, we like our residential neighborhoods that way out here. Are you comparing the parts of those cities that really resemble Pt. Loma? I do thoroughly agree with the mass transit comment.

“Implementation is one thing, but don’t agree with characterizing smart growth principles like mixed-use, transit-oriented development, walkability, (most) density, transportation and housing choice as some sort of bad thing or developer playground.” I didn’t say either of these things in my commentary. The concept that embodies what you described is admirable in some ways, but the key component is missing, places to work. If people still have to get in their cars to drive off to work, then they can just as easily stop off at stores along the way and don’t need them within walking distance of their residences. We are talking about existing neighborhoods where there are few opportunities to create places to work. A decent mass transit system would be a great idea.

“Having mom and pop businesses and fiscally-viable public transportation requires a critical mass and enough customers/riders nearby, and smart growth in general really does help to create livable, walkable, vibrant communities.” Just examine that sentence. In order to support mom and pop businesses and a fiscally viable public transportation system, a “critical mass” is required. What that means to me is, first we need to crowd everyone together to achieve a critical mass, then we can create the “livable, walkable, vibrant communities.” That concept is better applied to deliberately planned communities that evolve around areas that intentionally include living density, a mass transportation hub, and office buildings and maybe some light industrial for some employment.

“In smart growth terms, Ocean Beach gets that right, and the area by this project does not.” Ocean Beach only got it right because it developed this way historically, much the same as the little “downtowns” in other parts of the city like North Park or any of the beach towns. The project area we are talking about is very different.

You wrote that the Santa Monica and Ebers project and the Saratoga and Abbott project fit the classification of getting the “least bad ones.” I understand what you mean but very often this is a tactic. Simple strategy, present one objectionable alternative that probably couldn’t be done anyway and then present what you really want and your choice wins. I’d like to know what the more objectionable alternative was for both of these projects and if anyone investigated those in any detail. And, my objection to what happened at Saratoga and Abbott was that the City gave away that precious land for practically nothing. That concession of precious land that would have benefitted everyone also allowed the project to be to the scale it is now. Perhaps it would have been scaled back without all that additional land.

“The bottom line is that they could have built an inferior project according to code with little to no variances.” The problem with this sentence is that one person’s idea of an inferior project is not another’s. Some folks might think smooshed together but fewer units to be a good idea.

“one can definitely argue the precedent being set by the minimal setback variances being granted.” Yes indeed because these things tend to grow outward from where they start. Look back at what the City used as reasoning for granting the street side setback for the Santa Monica and Ebers project, there was one next door like it so, why not?

“To a large extent, the entire point of the community planning groups is for a variety of interests to come together over some discretionary issue or issues and work out reasonable solutions that work for everyone and the community at large.” I agree with this comment. The key part of it for me is the wording “the community at large.” If there is no benefit for the community at large, why grant the variances?

Referring to the Santa Monica and Ebers project you wrote that “the setback requirements were probably more prohibitive for them than “normal-sized” lots in the same zone. That’s a tricky proposition, because the applicant can argue that they are being held to a more restrictive standard than their neighbors.” I’m not sure what you mean they can argue this, with whom? Only one of these lots faced this issue, not all four. One solution for this piece of land would have been to make two regular sized lots out of the four lots. You still could have had four units as this is zoned multi-family. The dwellings could have been a more normal size and the setback variance on Ebers would not have been needed. This would also have fit in with the character of the neighborhood with a home on the front and backs of lots. I’m sure this would involve some costs but I doubt seriously the community would have objected to this idea. If Stebbins had made this argument to me, my response would have been if what you want to build is so important to you, find a lot that will accommodate it, it you have to build on this lot, build a project that fits this lot.

In closing, I appreciate your comments, you presented a side of the issue very well.

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avatar Rufus December 27, 2013 at 5:48 am

“For me, the almost unfettered allowance of these types of units is the single biggest threat to the quality of life in Pt. Loma and Ocean Beach.”

I had to chuckle at this statement. Many homes in Point Loma, La Jolla and Mission Hills have companion units where “the help” lives. One person’s “threat to quality of life” is another person’s necessity it seems.

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avatar Geoff Page December 30, 2013 at 10:17 am

Not sure I understand the comment, Rufus. My objection is that these are second units in areas zoned as single family. There used to be at least some restrictions that kept some from being built but the door is wide open now. Before long that single family zoning designation will be a joke if it isn’t already.

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avatar Katydid52 December 27, 2013 at 10:54 am

My first encounter with California rentals and development was in Santa Barbara 15 years ago. Tiny laundry rooms became “bedrooms” and 1 bedroom houses became 2 bedroom. Detached garages, with doors still intact, became “rental apartments”. I had never seen anything like this in the other 3 states I had lived in. Of course, it’s illegal, but no one ever enforces it. I called their development, “developing with a crowbar”, since they seemed to want to jam as many multi-family units, stores, offices, and parking garages on as little land as possible. Maybe we ended up with suburban sprawl when people ran to escape being jammed on top of so many other people, with little privacy or quiet.

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avatar Christo Kuzmich December 29, 2013 at 8:31 am

Keep in mind that the density is what allows most renters to live here. If every prop had just one unit on it, the rent would be either astronomical or the owner would live on it.

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avatar sean M January 3, 2014 at 8:13 am

A few years ago affordable housing was a human right, now there’s too much density. Can’t have it both ways.

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