News

After resounding defeat, the lessons of Maybell

How will voters' rejection of Measure D impact Palo Alto?

Housing advocates clashed with neighborhood preservationists in Palo Alto on Election Night. When the dust settled, it wasn't even that close.

For advocates of Measure D, which lost by nearly 2,000 votes (44 percent to 56 percent), the election results spelled a bitter end to a project that promised to expand the city's sorely needed supply of affordable housing for seniors. For opponents, who concluded their election party with hugs and clinks of champagne glasses, the result was a victory for democracy and a resounding statement against the growing density of new buildings in residential neighborhoods.

"It restores faith in democracy, that ordinary citizens in Palo Alto can make a difference," said Jen Fryhling, one of the leaders of the "Vote Against D" campaign.

In the near term, the consequences of the Measure D vote are fairly clear. The 2.46-acre orchard site on Maybell and Clemo avenues will retain its existing zoning despite the council's effort in June to change it to a "planned community." The Palo Alto Housing Corporation, the nonprofit developer that was planning to build 60 apartments for low-income seniors and sell the rest of the land to a developer for 12 market-rate homes, will now likely look elsewhere in its Sisyphean effort to bolster the city's stock of affordable housing. And the old apricot orchard will remain an old apricot orchard until a new development proposal is submitted to the city.

But the emphatic victory of the anti-Measure D campaign leaves plenty of lingering questions that won't be answered for months, if not years. How will Measure D affect other dense developments on the city's horizon? Will the City Council reform the infamous "planned community" process that continues to frustrate the community? How will the citizen rebellion against the council influence the 2014 council election?

Election data and interviews with stakeholders help shed some light on these issues. Here are a few takeaways from Measure D's emphatic defeat on Election Day.

Citizen engagement is alive and well

For years, "civic engagement" was one of the official priorities of the City Council, whose members often talk about the need for community outreach and just as often lament the lack of people in the council chambers when they're discussing important issues like high-speed rail and the Comprehensive Plan.

Just this week, the council was discussing ways to engage the public in identifying the city's "core values" and approved an outreach process that involves giant touchscreens, a website called Open City Hall and a video made in conjunction with local students.

Whether or not the city's campaign proves successful, one of the lessons of Measure D is that local residents are far from apathetic when it comes to local government. The voter turnout (of about 38 percent of the city's registered voters) was predictably mild given that there were no local, state or national races and that Measure D was the only issue up for a vote. The roughly 14,540 ballots that were counted as of Thursday afternoon were far fewer than the roughly 25,000 cast in 2010, when voters struck down a firefighter initiative to freeze staffing levels and changed local elections from odd to even years. The number was also slightly below the roughly 15,000 who voted in 2011 to "undedicate" a portion of Byxbee Park to allow for a potential facility that would convert waste into energy.

Even so, the campaign was successful in both qualifying the issue for the ballot this summer and in getting the votes out. Opponents of Measure D had a strong message — "preserve neighborhood zoning" — and this message resonated far beyond the Barron Park and Green Acres neighborhoods, ground zero for Maybell. Residents also formed a new group, Palo Altans to Preserve Neighborhood Zoning, whose members stressed Tuesday night that they will remain engaged in the city's future zoning issues.

Mayor Greg Scharff, who supported Measure D along with the rest of the council, nevertheless was quick to praise the victors on running a successful campaign. Though he said he was "disappointed with the results," he added that he was pleased to see democracy in action.

"A large group of Palo Altans organized and did an excellent job on the campaigning. They got the message out and democracy prevailed," Scharff told the Weekly in an interview. "I think that's a good thing. That's a positive thing."

Measure D was never really about Maybell

The election maps carry the same message as the list of people who contributed to the plucky, low-budget anti-D campaign: Rezoning is a citywide issue. Nearly every precinct outside of downtown, Palo Alto Hills and the neighborhood near the Taube-Koret Campus for Jewish Life on the southern edge of the city opposed Measure D, though the margins varied greatly.

The three precincts near the Maybell site predictably had the widest gaps, with one of them opposing Measure D by a vote count of 483 to 193 and the other one voting 411 to 166 (in both cases, 71 percent against). The precinct by the orchard voted most overwhelmingly against the measure, 595 to 165 (78 percent opposition). Elsewhere, the margin was far closer.

Most of the precincts leaning in favor of Measure D were clustered around University South, which includes the senior community of Channing House and the affordable-housing development Webster Wood. The precinct with the two facilities had 323 people voting in favor of the measure (69 percent) and 126 opposing it. Several adjacent neighborhoods tilted slightly in favor of Measure D.

The color-coded map provided by the Santa Clara County Registrar of Voters shows Measure D opposition extending from nearly border to border. The color connoting precincts with a "no" majority, dominates the map. Exceptions include the downtown cluster of precincts, the vast but sparsely populated Palo Alto Hills (where Measure D prevailed 40 to 34) and the precinct that includes the Saint Francis and Triple El neighborhoods near U.S. Highway 101. The latter supported Measure D by only four votes, 249 to 245, according to the registrar's "semi-final" tally as of Thursday afternoon. In the south Palo Alto precinct that includes the senior-housing community Moldaw Residences and the Charleston Gardens neighborhood, 181 votes out of the 322 supported the measure (56 percent).

Paralleling the map, the Vote Against D campaign's financial contributors came from neighborhoods throughout the city. While the opposition was heavily outspent, its supporters included plenty of neighborhood leaders and watchdogs from outside Barron Park, including Fred Balin of College Terrace and Neilson Buchanan from Downtown North.

The color maps also suggest that while the City Council was focusing on the technical specifics of the Maybell project — the number of cars it would add to each street around the orchard, the lot sizes of the proposed houses, potential alternative developments that could be built under existing zoning — many of the opponents were thinking in broader terms about issues such as "planned community" zoning and Palo Alto's increasing traffic congestion and parking shortages.

Cheryl Lilienstein, spokesperson for the Vote Against D campaign, said her group, Palo Altans to Preserve Neighborhood Zoning, will remain engaged in the city's planning process as other rezoning proposals come online. The issue of protecting neighborhoods from increasing density, she said, is not limited to her neighborhood of Barron Park.

"In doing this campaign, we have connected with other neighborhood groups who have concerns that overlap with ours, and we intend to support one another," Lilienstein told the Weekly.

Planned communities could become a tougher sell

Before the Maybell election, many people complained about planned-community projects, which trade away zoning exemptions for "public benefits" negotiated between the city and the developer.

The process has a checkered history, with the most recent controversies including two disappearing "public" plazas (one next to Saint Michael's Alley restaurant and the other subsumed by Caffe Riace) and one disappearing supermarket (the "Save JJ&F" campaign succeeded in getting the College Terrace Centre development on El Camino Real approved but didn't really save the venerable grocer, which departed soon after the approval).

The Maybell project was different. Shepherded by the Palo Alto Housing Corporation, a nonprofit with a four-decade history of providing affordable housing, it sought to address one of the city's greatest needs by building 60 apartments for low-income seniors. In a city where rents are sky high and where nearly 20 percent of seniors live near the poverty level, affordable housing was widely seen as a legitimate benefit.

Winter Dellenbach, a Barron Park resident who is one of the city's staunchest critics of the planned-community process, fully supported the Maybell development. So did Councilwoman Karen Holman, one of the council's leading skeptics of new developments.

Even so, the voters rallied behind the cry, "Preserve neighborhood zoning," and defeated the project.

The Election Day results thus beg two questions: If the voters can unify to defeat a planned-community project with benefits so tangible they are almost oxymoronic (affordable housing in Palo Alto!), what can they do with more typical PC projects such as the office developments proposed by Jay Paul Company and Pollock Financial Group near El Camino and Page Mill Road? Also, how will it affect the city's handling of planned-community applications?

Not every council member was in a mood on Election Night to discuss the issue. When asked if he was surprised by the election results, Councilman Larry Klein declined to comment. Councilwoman Liz Kniss called it a "sad day" as she walked out of the "Yes on D" party shortly after the early results were announced.

Holman, a former planning commissioner, called the results "instructive."

Scharff said the message that he heard from voters on Election Day is one he's been hearing for months. Residents are concerned about too much traffic and not enough parking. They don't want to see ugly architecture and out-of-scale density. These positions are easy to understand and sympathize with, he said, and the council is already taking many actions to address them. In just the past few months, the council had eliminated a series of laws granting parking exemptions; unveiled its planned downtown "residential parking program"; begun a conversation about a transportation-demand management program that would get commuters out of their cars; and continued to look into new garages, which Scharff said cannot be built soon enough. The vote only reinforced the sentiments that the council is well aware of, he said.

But at least one thing about Measure D changed his thinking regarding planned-community projects — the campaign's focus on preserving the "neighborhood feeling." Unlike most PC projects that the council had been considering, the Maybell proposal was in a residential area, albeit bordered by two apartment complexes. This resonated with many residents, including Scharff.

"I'd be much more hesitant frankly about a PC in a residential neighborhood," Scharff said.

He cited the concerns put forward by the Vote Against D campaign that residents will "have PCs pop up in your residential neighborhood."

"That's unfortunate. I don't think there's a sense on the council that we'd do that. But I think we may need to provide reassurance on that point. ... One of the things that maybe we can do is simply say that we will not do PC in residential neighborhoods. Period."

November 2014 should be very interesting

Palo Alto's last City Council election was a humdrum affair, with just six candidates (including incumbents Pat Burt and Greg Schmid) fighting for four seats. The 2012 candidate pool was in fact the smallest since 1985.

Measure D suggests November 2014 could be far more exciting.

In the weeks leading up to this year's Election Day, there was plenty of grumbling from the anti-D camp about the council not listening to residents. At the election party Tuesday, some opponents of the rezoning decision talked about replacing the current council and also reforming the city's planned-community process.

The group Palo Altans to Preserve Neighborhood Zoning was planning to meet on Thursday to break down election results and consider next steps, Cheryl Lilienstein said. Members hope to get a better understanding of the PC process and also the way in which the city drafts an "impartial analysis" for referendums (the group has contended having the city's attorney write an "impartial" analysis on an item in which the city is challenged poses an inherent conflict of interest).

But the prospect of fielding council candidates also looms large, begging comparisons to the heated 1960s election battles between "the establishment" and "slow-growth residentialist" candidates. The analogy is far from ironclad. Most members of the current council, particularly Karen Holman, Greg Schmid and Pat Burt, already hold strong residentialist credentials and are cautious about new developments.

There will be at least one new council member after the 2014 election, when Councilman Larry Klein will complete his second consecutive term. The big question now is how many people will enter the fray to take his seat and to challenge the other four incumbents — Mayor Greg Scharff, Vice Mayor Nancy Shepherd and councilmembers Holman and Gail Price — whose terms will expire and who will have the option of running again. That's a question that neighborhood leaders will be wrestling with in the coming months.

"I'd say from the beginning, because the City Council wasn't listening to us, there has been a consistent undercurrent of challenging the incumbents," Lilienstein told the Weekly. "That's been a very strong message that has been internal to this organizational effort.

"If we felt their decisions have been considering our concerns, I don't think we'd feel there was a challenge necessary. It definitely feels that way now."

Comments

Posted by Voter, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Nov 8, 2013 at 10:27 am

Great job Palo Altans to Preserve Neighborhood Zoning. You have my gratitude for all of your hard work and my support for any slate of candidates you vet and run in 2014.

Scharff, a consummate politician who is facing reelection, is already backtracking and trying to do damage control, perhaps hoping voters will forget that he was the one front and center debating for Measure D.

Kniss (safe until 2016) and Klein (termed out, despite his desperate attempts to remove term limits) showed how much contempt they have for the will of the citizenry with their grudging reaction to the strong message the voters sent them.


Posted by A neighbor, a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 8, 2013 at 10:40 am

Gennady,

You said:

"The Maybell project was different. Shepherded by the Palo Alto Housing Corporation, a nonprofit with a four-decade history of providing affordable housing, it sought to address one of the city's greatest needs by building 60 apartments for low-income seniors. In a city where rents are sky high and where nearly 20 percent of seniors live near the poverty level, affordable housing was widely seen as a legitimate benefit."

Could you please consider the following questions:

1- How did you quantify that these 60 apartments are one of the city's greatest needs?

2- What is the financial profile of the P.A. seniors who live near the poverty line? Do they own their houses, that have appreciated a lot, or are they currently renting?

3- Does the 20% of seniors who live near the poverty line include folks who are already living in a senior facility such as Channing House, Stevenson House, etc.? Does it make sense to include them?

3- Given that state law doesn't allow it, how will we guarantee that the apartments will go to long time Palo Alto residents and not any senior who will be happy to move to P.A. to get the low rent unit?

4- Did you ask PAHC to give some details, of course without giving private data, on who all the seniors on their waiting lists are?

5- Did you calculate the sky high cost of each Maybell apt.(in tax payer funds) and do the analysis of whether it makes more sense to build a new facility or give subsidies for rent?

That said, thank you for your excellent work. You are the most through reporter on this issue.


Posted by Craig Laughton, a resident of College Terrace
on Nov 8, 2013 at 10:50 am

>it (PAHC) sought to address one of the city's greatest needs by building 60 apartments for low-income seniors.

That is an editorial statement by Gennady Sheyner. He needs to defend it.


Posted by CrescentParkAnon., a resident of Crescent Park
on Nov 8, 2013 at 11:01 am

I think it's clear from history that the lesson to the City and Developers is likely to be - be as opaque, be as secretive as possible, give the public as little input in the most difficult and inconvenient ways possible, and then plan on a certain percentage of these proposals being found out and reversed and look at it as a cost of doing business instead of trying to meet the needs of the community ... because let's face it, this is Palo Alto, meeting the needs of the community is difficult and even impossible in most cases.

Some things that I started out thinking were awful are not so bad or I can live with. The Mitchell Park Library for me is going to be fine, maybe even very nice when it is done and the plants grow in. Others not so much ...just last night on my way down to the Mountain View Whole Foods I noticed another block of condos/townhouses/something on El Camino down near the South part of town with almost no setback. What kind of quality of life is housing that has your living room window a yard away from El Camino supposed to provide?

If Palo Altans really want to have some say in this it may be up to the them to find a way to be more involved and assertive, but then we all have differing ideas too.

At a minimum we need to decide are the things we can agree on and insist that some rules be followed. There are some nice developments with minimal setback, there is greenery and trees planted that still look nice while allowing expensive land not to be wasted.

What are Palo Altan's "MUST HAVES" in terms of development? Whose responsibility should it be to find that out and try to enforce it?


Posted by coooper, a resident of another community
on Nov 8, 2013 at 11:14 am

I wonder how many votes were swayed by Liz Kniss' support of the project, and anti-Kniss comments of "follow the money". Clearly Kniss is out of tune with the voters. It's too bad she can't be voted out now. But, she could resign.


Posted by A-Question-For-Palo-Alto, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 8, 2013 at 11:26 am

> the election results spelled a bitter end to a project that promised
> to expand the city's sorely needed supply of affordable housing for seniors.

This is a pretty vague statement. There was an incessant drumbeat about the need for more housing for seniors during this campaign, but very little in the way of data about how many dwelling units actually exist, and how many Palo Alto seniors are actually unable to live in Palo Alto without government assistance.

It's a shame that reporters can't stick to the facts, and not insert their personal opinions, or agendas, into the articles.

So, a question for all Palo Altans--just how many so-called affordable dwelling units should their be in Palo Alto?


Posted by Silly, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Nov 8, 2013 at 11:55 am

How many should there be? How about putting a moratorium on high-density building that's making it hazardous to drive and leave your home?

So tired of the traffic backups and the ridiculous claims that all the development won't add one single car to our traffic gridlock.

How green are your exhaust fumes?


Posted by curious, a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 8, 2013 at 11:59 am

I still want to know if seniors can bring their grandchildren into PAUSD. Any answers for that question?


Posted by Allen Edwards, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Nov 8, 2013 at 12:04 pm

Just get rid of the Planned Community process. The zoning exception gets build and the public benefit goes away. Just go look at the public park behind the now empty Miki's.

Council members: Pleas state your support or opposition to the Planned Community rezoning idea. I need to know how to vote.


Posted by Inside view, a resident of Green Acres
on Nov 8, 2013 at 12:21 pm

"The Maybell project was different. Shepherded by the Palo Alto Housing Corporation, a nonprofit with a four-decade history of providing affordable housing, it sought to address one of the city's greatest needs by building 60 apartments for low-income seniors. In a city where rents are sky high and where nearly 20 percent of seniors live near the poverty level, affordable housing was widely seen as a legitimate benefit."

That's right, but the Maybell project was designed to serve those in the 30-60% of AMI bracket, which is well above the poverty limit. PAHC began their quest telling us about homeless seniors, and when that didn't work, they moved on to those below the poverty limit, none of which would be served by this property as proposed in the ordinance.

They also promised us that the seniors wouldn't be working, wouldn't have cars, and would want to live in small rental apartments paying a third of their income in a place that is this expensive for everything else. If we're talking seniors who are retired, 30-60% of AMI in retirement or social security means we're talking about people who were fairly high income earners but who don't have assets. How big a group is that? PAHC had a huge credibility problem because they seemed to have simply gone after the property because they could, not because they had done a careful study of the local need and then tried to meet it.

Given how unusual the senior demographic in Palo Alto is, there were just too many leaps to make, especially since they were trying to leverage the zoning exceptions based on the need. They didn't make their case, and in trying to push through such a tenuous one, they hurt their own reputation - badly - in the community.

One thing this article doesn't bring up is the role electronic communication played in what happened. Much of the opposition happened in cyberspace and translated to action in the real world. Because of the controversy, the interconnections have increased and strengthened. Any of those politicians involved in this better realize, we know a lot more about what happened than they seem to think, and they have a big job ahead of them re-establishing trust if they think their political futures are anything but toast.

The results here have everything to do with the fact that Palo Altans are much more connected in many ways than we once were, and we talk to each other. Even the heavy-lifting senior volunteers who weren't online were reached because of online communication.


Posted by Many, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 8, 2013 at 12:24 pm



Among the lesson I have learned is that if the amount of energy that goes into housing would go into infrastructure, we could actually maybe build more housing.


Posted by Reality check, a resident of Adobe-Meadows
on Nov 8, 2013 at 12:25 pm

Another thread betraying the real reason for the outcome. No concern for the needs of these seniors, combined with robust NIMBYism.


Posted by JerryL, a resident of Adobe-Meadows
on Nov 8, 2013 at 12:38 pm

We need to completely eliminate the lie that is inherent in the so-called
Planned Community zoning. It is not "planned" (any more than any building project has to be). It is not a "community" but rather an office building,
a handful of condos or a few row houses. I know what real Planned Communities are and the PC approvals in Palo Alto in recent years are not worthy of being call that. Let's abolish the euphemistic term forever.
Palo Alto is already fully (over?) developed. There is no possibility of turning it into a "Planned Community" short of bulldozing the city flat and starting over. So let's get honest and stick to well defined terms. Let's stop disguising zoning changes with misused fancy sounding names that don't apply.


Posted by Many, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 8, 2013 at 12:39 pm

Reality check,

Actually I am concerned about seniors.

But I'm not concerned about millionaire seniors, or 62 year olds driving Teslas.

and I don't care who builds in my back yard as long as I don't have to pay for it.

Especially not going to pay to help out millionaire seniors.



Posted by Insider View, a resident of Green Acres
on Nov 8, 2013 at 12:41 pm

[Post removed.]


Posted by Scharff amazes once again, a resident of Palo Verde
on Nov 8, 2013 at 12:53 pm

Scharff's comments continue to amaze, in a bad way.

Scharff represented the Palo Alto Housing Corp in the debates and championed the effort in favor of Measure D. It hasn't even been a week and he's now praising the No on D leadership team and taking up their messages. It's outrageous! Even more offensive is his new found desire to protect residential neighborhoods when that has not been represented by his past actions nor his votes on prior Planned Community projects.

"But at least one thing about Measure D changed his thinking regarding planned-community projects — the campaign's focus on preserving the "neighborhood feeling." Unlike most PC projects that the council had been considering, the Maybell proposal was in a residential area, albeit bordered by two apartment complexes. This resonated with many residents, including Scharff. "I'd be much more hesitant frankly about a PC in a residential neighborhood," Scharff said.

There are three PCs that Scharff voted to approve during his tenure on Council: Lytton Gateway, Edgewood Plaza and Palo Alto Bowl. All three of these projects are PCs on busy streets at the edge or in the middle of residential neighborhoods, just like Maybell. So are College Terrace Centre (JJ&F) and the homes behind the Elks Club.

Lytton Gateway is adjacent to lots zoned R-1 at the transition between commercial University Ave area and residential Downtown North. The Municipal Code (Section 18.38.150) for PCs required that the new building not exceed 35 feet within 150 feet of R-1 and R-2 lots. Scharff is the one who figured out and championed the legal maneuver to violate the height limit in the PC Ordinance that protects low density residential lots. Scharff most certainly knew that the Maybell project was again violating the height requirement in a residential neighborhood.

The degradation of residential neighborhoods from dense, ugly, under-parked, poorly planned PC projects is exactly what the residents are angry about. Maybell was not the first, but rather the straw that broke the camels back. No lesson will be learned by Scharff or other Council Members until they understand that virtually all the past PCs were at the edge of or in our residential neighborhoods.


Posted by palo alto resident, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Nov 8, 2013 at 1:33 pm

PAHC has 12 BMR units at Sunrise Assisted Living. To qualify for one of those units, your assets must be under $500,000 and you income must be under$58,800 a year. That qualifies for BMR Housing?

Web Link

All but one of their BMR rental properties seem to have income levels of around $60K a year. In other words, if you make less than $60K you qualify for a Below Market Rate property? Seriously?


Posted by Thanks Weekly!, a resident of Adobe-Meadows
on Nov 8, 2013 at 1:42 pm

[Post removed.]


Posted by Douglas Moran, a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 8, 2013 at 1:55 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

On Mayor Greg Scharff:
When he ran for Council in 2009, one of the things I found promising about him was that he used words like "fallacies" and "delusions" to describe "Smart Growth" and related issues (from a note I sent out assessing the candidates). Once in office, he bought into and supported those policies.

I should have been more skeptical. Remember the Charles de Gaulle saying "Since a politician never believes what he says, he is surprised when others believe him."


Posted by pecuniac, a resident of another community
on Nov 8, 2013 at 2:05 pm

Oh no! I've lived for 75 years on this planet and have a low income so I Deserve to get a low cost apartment in Palo Alto. Really.

The Below Market Rate (BMR) system is a scam to provide:
A big project to make sure that the Planning and Building Depts have a secure job.
Developers have a profitable stream of projects.
The City Council ammunition to guilt trip Palo Altans comfortably placed in their homes.


Posted by musical, a resident of Palo Verde
on Nov 8, 2013 at 3:15 pm

Can't anyone arrange their income and assets in such a way as to qualify?


Posted by Fairmeadow progressive, a resident of Fairmeadow
on Nov 8, 2013 at 4:11 pm

It's pretty obvious reading these comments that we don't need to resort to highminded ideas about growth vs. stability, etc., to understand what happened. Hostility to the poor is good enough. It's not the Palo Alto I love, that's for sure. But it is the one that I seem to be living in.


Posted by A neighbor, a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 8, 2013 at 5:02 pm

@musical

You asked : "Can't anyone arrange their income and assets in such a way as to qualify?"

The answer: Absolutely yes.

The following link will have answers to some of your questions:

Web Link

I Know of many very wealthy immigrants with considerable assets in their old country who rent this kind of low rent apt.


Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 8, 2013 at 5:03 pm

The City Council hasn't learned anything.

They'll pay some lip service ("hooray for democracy"), but in reality they think this is some kind of wild fluke. It was a small turnout, the neighborhood ran the most brilliant campaign in history, Palo Altans are senior-hating tea-partiers, PAHC fell down, something. Greg Scharff, Liz Kniss et al will either rationalize it away, or else just ignore it. The sad reality is: most of them like being on Palo Alto City Council, but they don't like Palo Alto residents.

That's why most of them need to go in 2014 and 2016.


Posted by PA Dweller, a resident of Community Center
on Nov 8, 2013 at 6:21 pm

PA Dweller is a registered user.

This is truly a great victory for democracy and civic engagement. Many of the more controversial topics around the city really aren't very tough decisions if the City Council is in tune with the will of the residents. Otherwise, we ought to give the residents more opportunities to vote.


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