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Neighborhood commission catches "height-itis" on a Dupont Circle church and condo project

If a building is taller than 59 feet but you can't see it, does it make a sound? In Dupont Circle, it makes a big racket in one ongoing development controversy.


Images from CAS Riegler.

The St. Thomas Episcopal Parish, whose main church at the corner of 18th Street and Church Street burned down due to arson in 1970, wants to build a new church. To fund that, they want to use part of their property to build a new condo building.

The proposed church is not particularly controversial, especially now that the parish revised their design to a better one than they had first proposed. But many neighbors are fiercely fighting the adjacent condo building, which will be closer to nearby row houses. (Disclosure: My house is almost directly across the street.)

The building has now gone before the Historic Preservation Review Board three times, and will return for a fourth on Thursday. I've been fine with the condo building proposal since fairly early in the process, and the Dupont Circle Conservancy supported the version proposed in March. The HPRB and local Advisory Neighborhood Commission, however, have asked for more changes to further shrink the building.

The ANC reached what members thought was a compromise in March, where they agreed to support the condo building, but only as long as the perceived height for a pedestrian around the building was no more than 59 feet. And, in fact, on the recent versions of the proposal, if you are standing on the sidewalk across from the building, you won't be able to see any parts that are taller.

While I think it was unnecessary in this case, this can be a smart approach. Small setbacks on the upper floors of a building can do a lot to make a building feel shorter when walking past on the street, without actually taking away much of the opportunity to add housing. You can get a large building that feels small instead of blocking the building and the potential new residents it can hold.

Beware of "height-itis"

Unfortunately, many neighbors focus not on the human experience but the total number of feet at the building's highest point. Let's call this "height-itis." Some of this comes from the fact that developers often talk at early community meetings about the height that zoning allows, and present a "massing diagram" which depicts a large box filling the zoning envelope.

Even if the developers never considered building such a box, some neighbors get caught up in talking about the total number of feet. Later architectural plans also show elevations, where high floors are just as visible as low ones.

Other elements of a building, like materials, windows, landscaping, and street-level detail, ultimately will matter much more than height. Developers generally have some leeway to make design changes, but if forced to lop off whole floors from the building, it severely constrains how much they can "shape" the building lower down and still make the project work economically.

"Height-itis" often makes it harder, not easier, for residents to get changes that will actually affect their property, like setbacks on upper floors to minimize the shadows a building casts. It can also lead to buildings that look boxier and less appealing (just as DC's height limit does downtown).

The Dupont ANC gets stuck

This is where a tricky detail comes in. The ANC's resolution says the condo building (not the church building) should look to be no more than 59 feet from anywhere on Church Street, 18th Street, P Street, or the nearby alley. If you go far enough down a street, then set back parts of the building would become visible, but the whole building is also far away and much smaller visually.

That's why historic preservation standards generally look only at the appearance of a building from right nearby. For example, other neighbors are adding a fourth story to their row house, which I will be able to see from my upstairs windows, but it's set back so you can't see it from the sidewalk (and, honestly, I'd be fine with it even if they didn't have to set it so far back, since the design looks very well done).

But the ANC's resolution is stricter. And many HPRB members look not at detailed legalistic standards, but the overall tenor of community feedback. Just having the ANC say it doesn't support the project has held it up significantly.

Further, the HPRB is not immune to "height-itis." One member, Graham Davidson of Hartman-Cox Architects, is in fact one of its most acute sufferers. He consistently suggests that buildings take off a floor and is rarely satisfied with setbacks that simply make it look shorter, as in a contentious case at 13th and U in 2013.

So HPRB has sent the project back for revisions multiple times. Last month, board members had only very minor changes, which the developer made. But Davidson opposed a motion to let the preservation staff handle any further issues, and instead suggested the project return on what's called the "consent calendar," where the board can approve it without a hearing and vote.

The ANC, however, passed yet another resolution opposing the project, saying that it doesn't meet the letter of their March resolution. Opponents are pushing for HPRB to take it off the consent calendar and force yet another hearing because of this.

The ANC says make it shorter, but acknowledges making it shorter is silly

Their resolution is strange. On the one hand, it says the ANC won't support the project. But on the other, it says,

Whereas the ANC 2B Zoning, Preservation and Development committee acknowledges the current design with its limited visible elements above 59 feet subjectively creates a more textured and attractive building and removing the 7th floor altogether may lead to a subjectively less attractive building design.
In other words, they know lopping off the floor would make the building worse, but hung their hats on 59 feet before, and won't budge. The resolutions have also been unanimous, even though some members have told me privately that they don't actually object to the building at this point.

Unfortunately, the effect is for the ANC to force HPRB to eventually disregard their views, perhaps diminishing the ANC's credibility. It also has delayed this project and forced everyone to attend numerous hearings.

Asking to improve a project is fine, but neighbor requests and ANC resolutions are most effective when they're well-considered. Succumbing to "height-itis," and then being stubbornly unwilling to consider more creative ways to deal with concerns, is not a good way to represent neighborhood interests on complex development projects.

Update: HPRB voted Thursday morning to approve the project on the consent calendar. Davidson and fellow board member Nancy Metzger advocated for further delay and hearings, but other board members supported moving the project forward.

How a DC neighborhood got the name of a Georgia poet

Lanier Heights, near Adams Morgan, isn't home to any live oaks or tidal marshes. But the person after whom the neighborhood is named, Sidney Lanier, is famous for his poetry about the natural beauty of his native Georgia.


Sidney Lanier Bridge. Photo by NatalieMaynor on Flickr.
And now from the Vast of the Lord will the waters of sleep
Roll in on the souls of men,
But who will reveal to our waking ken
The forms that swim and the shapes that creep
Under the waters of sleep?
And I would I could know what swimmeth below when the tide comes in
On the length and the breadth of the marvelous marshes of Glynn.

During the Civil War, Lanier served in the Confederate army, remaining loyal to his home state of Georgia. However, he was captured by Union forces and imprisoned at a prisoner of war camp at Point Lookout, Maryland. There, he contracted tuberculosis.

The experience of having the debilitating disease and of seeing the death and destruction wrought upon the South, and especially Georgia, heavily influenced his life and his later writings.

Lanier eventually made his way to Baltimore, where he joined the faculty of Johns Hopkins University. To help support his family, he began publishing his poetry in magazines, and doing so he gained a bit of notoriety.

At the time of his death in 1881, at the age of 39, his popularity was very high. Around this time, Lanier Heights was being laid out, and many sources believe the name refers to the Georgian poet. There are others, though, that disagree.

While his poems are generally couched in the natural beauty of the South, the underlying themes often deal with mortality.

In Georgia, he is very well known. In fact, the state named Lanier County after him. The longest bridge in the state, which carries US 17 over the South Brunswick River near the salt marshes in Glynn County is also named for him. As is Lake Sidney Lanier, the primary drinking water reservoir for the Atlanta region, which flooded the "valleys of Hall [County]" referenced in his poem Song of the Chattahoochee.

Out of the hills of Habersham,
Down the valleys of Hall,
I hurry amain to reach the plain,
Run the rapid and leap the fall,
Split at the rock and together again,
Accept my bed, or narrow or wide,
And flee from folly on every side
With a lover's pain to attain the plain
Far from the hills of Habersham,
Far from the valleys of Hall.
Lanier is buried in Baltimore's Greenmount Cemetery.

What state has the best DC avenue?

There are rankings that compare states for all kinds of things—what state has the best economy, is the most bike-friendly, whose residents are most miserable, has the best beer. Now, you can compare which states have the best avenues named for them in DC.


Image from Google Maps.

There's a road named for each of the 50 states (and Puerto Rico) in the District. Matt Johnson explains the patterns behind where the avenues are located. You can also learn more about them with this video of someone biking them all.

To create a single ranking among state avenues, Michael Grass at Route Fifty tallied up scores on a number of criteria:

  1. How many quadrants the avenue passes through
  2. Whether the state is one of the 13 original colonies that formed the US
  3. If the road is in the original L'Enfant plan for DC
  4. If it radiates from the White House or Capitol
  5. How many important circles and squares it connects
  6. How many other state streets it crosses
  7. If it has segments missing or other interruptions along the way
  8. If it's not an Avenue (California Street and Ohio Drive)
  9. If it extends to Maryland with the same name
  10. How long it is
There's some overlap between #2, #3, and #4; Pierre L'Enfant assigned the streets radiating from the White House and Capitol to the states in existence at the time, most of which were original colonies, and all of those are naturally in the original L'Enfant Plan. But other original colonies, and states that joined soon after, got other diagonal avenues around the city, particularly on Capitol Hill.

There are exceptions, though: What's now Potomac Avenue used to be Georgia Avenue until residents of Brightwood lobbied to rename Brightwood Avenue for the state. As Matt wrote, "They had hoped to curry favor with senator Augustus Bacon, but he promptly died, and never had a chance to affect the fortunes of these suburban pioneers." Still, it helped Georgia Avenue get more points, since it now qualifies for points for going to Maryland, and for being really long, while losing out on being in the L'Enfant City (it's 7th Street south of Florida).

Here are the results:


Image from Route Fifty.

As a native of Massachusetts, I'm pleased that my state comes out on top, being really long, crossing a lot of other state avenues, passing through three quadrants and Maryland, being in the L'Enfant plan and an original colony, and topping the list of important circles and squares with a whopping 13 (Westmoreland Circle, Wesley Circle, Ward Circle, Observatory Circle, Sheridan Circle, Dupont Circle, Scott Circle, Thomas Circle, Mt. Vernon Square, Columbus Circle, Stanton Park, Lincoln Park, and Randle Circle).

California Street, on the other hand, is a four-block street in Adams Morgan that's even shorter than nearby Wyoming Avenue and doesn't even get to be an Avenue. On Matt Johnson's post, commenter Mike (not Michael Grass) wrote,

California Ave. (previously named Oakland Ave. and, before that, Prospect Ave. [or St.; it depends on the map and subdivision you look at]) was changed to T Street in Oct. 1905 when the Board of Commissioners renamed the streets in section 1 of the Permanent System of Highways. Residents on the street complained, and it was changed back in 1906, but only to California St. because the commissioners felt it was not wide or straight enough to be an avenue.
The road's stature definitely does not reflect the importance of the state with which it shares a name (being far less significant a street than almost any other state-named street, period). But Massachusetts definitely is the best.

Ask GGW: Why is the street grid lopsided east of Georgia Ave NW?

The street grid east of Georgia Avenue and south of Madison Street is slightly lopsided, with horizontal streets angled slightly towards the northeast and vertical streets angled slightly towards the northwest. Reader Robb wants to know why this is the case.


Sanborn Fire Insurance Map of Petworth 1903-1916. Photo by Ghosts of DC.

Truth be told, we're not sure.

What we do know is that the neighborhoods that this section of Georgia Avenue traverses—Brightwood Park, Petworth, Park View, Pleasant Plains (where Howard University is located), and LeDroit Park—are all north of Florida Avenue (formerly known as Boundary Street), which means they're outside of Pierre L'Enfant's original DC street grid.

Many of these neighborhoods were developed in the late 1800s after the Civil War.

In 1893, Congress passed a law mandating that existing streets must be changed or moved in order to conform with the city's street plan, the System of Permanent Highways. ("Highway," like "parking" is a common law term whose meaning changed in the 20th century. Here it denotes only that it's a maintained public right-of-way.)


From top to bottom, Brightwood Park, Petworth, Park View, Pleasant Plains, and LeDroit Park, all with a "lopsided" street grid east of Georgia Avenue NW. Base image from Google Maps.

Previously, Congress passed a law that said future DC subdivisions had to conform to the street, but that existing ones could stay how they were. This covered the neighborhoods along Georgia Avenue, so they kept their alignments even the System of Permanent Highways came into place.

Other neighborhoods in DC, like Brookland, Kalorama, and Columbia Heights, also deviate from the L'Enfant grid. LeDroit Park, for example, was originally a suburban neighborhood outside of the original city of Washington, and is laid out differently.

What we're still unsure of is why these particular streets were built at an unusual angle. Do any of you, our readers, know?

Do you have a question? Each week, we'll pose a question to the Greater Greater Washington contributors and post appropriate parts of the discussion. You can suggest questions by emailing ask@ggwash.org. Questions about factual topics are most likely to be chosen. Thanks!

It's about to get easier to build mid-rises in DC

Soon, it might be a lot easier and less expensive to build mid-rise buildings along transit corridors in DC. This is thanks to a 2015 update to the International Building Code.


The View at Waterfront, new buildings

The View at Waterfront, a proposed 85' tall wood-framed building. Rendering by SK+I Architecture.

The code now permits light-framed buildings of wood or steel, which are often faster and less expensive to build than equivalent heavy-framed structures, to reach eight stories and up to 85' high—just shy of the 90' limit the Height Act imposes outside of downtown.


Photo by Payton Chung on Flickr.

How much less expensive? The blocks above illustrate three potential scenarios for a light frame apartment building built with wood or steel studs, and with sprinklers.

On the left, the building has five floors of light wood framing (yellow) over a one-floor "podium" of heavy concrete framing. On the right, the building has eight floors, all of heavy concrete framing. Switching from the left to the right increases the building area by 33%, but because concrete is more expensive, costs increase by 60%.

When I wrote about this topic last year, seven- and eight-story buildings had to be built from heavy-duty concrete or steel, welded or poured on-site, for fire reasons. This "Type I" construction process is time-consuming, material-intensive, and expensive.

Eight-story buildings made economic sense on 14th Street NW, where land values are high. But the high cost of construction stymied development in less pricey neighborhoods.

What the 2015 building code permits is a compromise, with a taller "podium" of concrete framing. That's the middle example. This building has 23% more area than the building on the left, but costs only 26% more.

DC currently operates under the the 2012 version of the IBC, but will soon start reviewing the 2015 code for formal adoption. DC law requires that the Council consider adopting the updated IBC by July. Maryland is on a faster track, having adopted the new code in January, and Virginia is about one year behind.

The new code in practice

One site where this compromise is being applied is adjacent to the Waterfront metro station. In 2007, a developer first proposed building apartments on two parking lots between Arena Stage and the Metro.

Since Southwest DC is considered part of downtown, it has a 130-foot height limit, and the developer got zoning approval for a pair of 11-story, 112-foot tall reinforced-concrete high-rises.

Mill Creek Residential, which developed the Dunn Loring-Merrifield Metro station's parking lot into the Avenir mixed-use complex, recently bought what they're now calling The View at Waterfront. SK+I Architecture redesigned the proposed buildings with wooden frames.

Under the new building code, the concrete podium can have multiple stories.

To take advantage of the change, the new plans for the View include a two-story concrete podium with five and a half stories of wood frame above, according to drawings within the zoning filing. The podium will contain a retail space (probably a restaurant) facing Arena Stage, resident common areas, and apartments.

Builders have a new material at their disposal, too

Another building code change that took effect in 2015 officially allows cross-laminated timber, a "mega-plywood" that mimics the heavy timber beams of yesteryear. The code limits CLT buildings to the same heights as conventional, light frame buildings, even though some countries' codes allow its use for taller buildings: 10-story buildings have been built from it in London and Melbourne.

T3 in Minneapolis
T3 in Minneapolis. Rendering by Michael Green Architecture.

For now, CLT may find a niche in commercial buildings due to its unique appearance, and ability to span wide-open spaces. The first mid-rise CLT building in the United States, a seven-story office building, will break ground this summer in a Minneapolis neighborhood known for its brick lofts.

Bob Pfefferle from developer Hines (which also built CityCenterDC) told Kristen Leigh Painter of the Star-Tribune, "it provides an authentic building that is respectful of the neighborhood. This will have the ambience of the old warehouses with timber beams that everyone wants, but solves all the problems of energy efficiency and light."

CLT could be an intriguing new technology to watch for in new commercial buildings in areas with an industrial heritage, like Union Market or Ivy City.

The guy who invented the mall hated cars

Many great minds have opined on cities, design, and urban planning. But few have made such a stark and apocryphal statement as this:


Photo by Chapendra on Flickr.
One technological event has swamped us. That is the advent of the rubber-wheeled vehicle. The private car, the truck, the trailer as means of mass transportation. And their threat to human life and health is just as great as that of the exposed sewer.
Strong words, indeed. But what is more surprising is who uttered them: none other than Victor Gruen, the man who invented the enclosed shopping mall that so came to be nearly synonymous with the American suburb.

A recent episode of the 99% Invisible podcast discussed Gruen's career as an architect and noted the seeming dissonance between his work (the shopping mall) and how much he hated cars.

Like many architects and planners of the post-war era, Gruen was attempting to deal with a society facing radical changes in the built form: cities were starting to be hollowed out by parking lots and urban renewal, and the automobile-centric suburbs were starting to sprawl across the landscape. He saw the American suburbs as lacking in the types of "third places" necessary for social engagement. He thought the fact that everyone drove everywhere severely limited social engagement and interaction.

His solution was to build a large enclosed public space centered on a climate controlled court. It would include retail arranged in a sort of main street style with small storefronts facing pedestrian walks. But cars, of course, would be banned. This is the form the typical shopping mall took.

Gruen's vision didn't stop there, though. He actually intended for the mall to be the centerpiece of a mixed-use neighborhood. The projects would include offices, apartments, public services, and other amenities. And within this space, the pedestrian would be king.

That's not how things turned out. The first of his projects, the Southdale Mall in Edina, Minnesota, near Minneapolis, was built with only its retail components. And it was surrounded by a sea of parking. People might walk within the mall, but they almost certainly drove to it.

For a fuller discussion of Gruen's vision and his disappointment with how it turned out, make sure to listen to this episode of 99% invisible. The design-focused podcast offers an excellent overview of the built environment and the other ways that design (invisibly) influences our lives.

Visit DC's wonderful public gardens on transit

Our region is blessed with over 100 public gardens, most of which are free or very cheap to visit. Here's a rundown of the very best, all of which you can get to by taking Metro or the bus.


The Smithsonian Castle garden. All photos by DC Gardens on Flickr.

Smithsonian Gardens

The easiest to access are the Smithsonian Gardens, a collection of gardens in and around many of the museums on the National Mall that counterbalance the dark halls of fossils and spacecraft.

The Smithsonian Gardens are comprised of 12 distinct spaces. They range from the Victory Garden, a recreation of a World War II vegetable and flower garden at the Museum of American History, to the contemporary Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.

You can get to all of the Smithsonian gardens by Metrorail and bus, and they're all free. A lot of them also host regular tours and other educational programming. The Mary Livingston Ripley Garden's tour, which is hosted by a horitculturist every Tuesday at 2 pm throughout October, is one of the best.

The US Botanic Garden

Also on the National Mall is the US Botanic Garden, a great place to enjoy native plants. In warm months, there is nothing more stunning than the blazing yellow-orange Amsonia with the National Museum of the American Indian in the background, and the glass conservatory is my place to get away from the long, dull gray of winter.

Mark your calendar: the Botanic Garden is open on both Christmas and New Year's Day, and it hosts a holiday garden railroad display.

Because the Architect of the Capitol runs the Botanic Garden rather than it being part of the Smithsonian, it can close unexpectedly, like when it hosts fundraisers for legislators. Make sure to check before you visit!


The US Botanic Garden.

Mount Saint Sepulchre Franciscan Monastery

If crowds aren't your thing, check out the Franciscan Monastery in Brookland. I usually take the Metro to Brookland and walk the mile there, but the H6 and the 80 buses get you even closer.

The Monastery grounds are free and open to all. They are known for their fantastic bulb displays around Easter, but there are stunning roses in late May and early June, and later in the summer there are tropical gardens that even feature a few palm trees.


Brookland's Franciscan Monastery.

The National Arboretum

Not far from the Monastery is the National Arboretum. There used to be a Metrobus that served this garden, but it was infrequent and eventually ceased service a few years ago. Now, the best way to go is to take the B2 bus and walk in from the R Street entrance.


The National Arboretum.

Among the Arboretum's unique collections are the sun-filled Gotelli Dwarf Conifer Collection (dwarf being a very relative term) and Fern Valley, which is shady and full of ephemeral woodland wildflowersin the early spring. Also, the National Herb Garden includes hundreds of species of herbs and visiting is a scent-filled, interactive experience.

The Arboretum is run by the US Department of Agriculture, and in recent years it has been more about research than public outreach and education. But the new director, Dr. Richard Olsen, comes from a horticultural background rather than an administrative one, and local gardeners hope that means a change of focus.


The National Arboretum.

The Arboretum is open every day of the year except Christmas. Recently, it was closed three days a week because of sequestration, but that didn't last thanks to fundraising by Friends of the National Arboretum.

The Arboretum's grounds are large and it would take several visits to see it all. Plan to visit often and in all seasons to see how the gardens change throughout the year.

Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens

Just across the Anacostia from the Arboretum are the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens. You can actually get there by canoe easier than by transit, but I usually take the Metro to Deanwood and walk over.

Once there, you pretty much have the whole place to yourself. A former waterlily nursery now a national park, this is the true hidden oasis of the city.


The Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens.

The Aquatic Gardens are also a wildlife haven. Both photographers and birders frequent the gardens in the early mornings, leaving before the heat of the day. They are missing out though, as the hundreds of waterlilies and lotus open up in the direct midday sun. The best time to see them is during July and August.

The Bishop's Close at the National Cathedral

The Bishop's Close at the National Cathedral is accessible and open to all. To get there, take one of the many 30 buses that go up and down Wisconsin and get off when you see the looming spires.


The Bishop's Close.

The secluded, walled garden is downhill from the south-facing side of the Cathedral, giving it a great view of the building. The garden itself is sunny and bright, which helps the roses and English-style perennial borders grow, but there are also some shady, quiet spots.

Outside of DC

Farther afield, local parks systems run Brookside Gardens in Wheaton and Green Spring Gardens in Alexandria, both of which are free to enter. Reaching either by transit takes a combination of Metrorail and bus, but they're both worth it if you're looking for an afternoon outside of the city. Of course, better access by transit would make these gardens even more valuable to their surrounding communities.


Green Springs Garden.

There's a lot more to gardens in DC than a once per year trip to see the cherry blossoms bloom. DC Gardens, a new local nonprofit, sprung up this spring to help spread the word about the city's great public gardens to both tourists and residents. On DCGardens' website, you'll find month to month calendars for lots of our public gardens, along with listings for events, festivals, and activities going on at each.

This post originally said the US Botanic Garden closes unexpectedly to host fundraisers for legislators. In fact, the Garden doesn't allow fundraisers of any kind.

This map puts a modern twist on Virginia's old railroads

The tracks the Virginia Railway Express ran on today used to host all kinds of important rail service. This subway-style map tells the history of some of Virginia's railways in 1921.


The main Virginia lines heading south from DC in 1921. Image by the author.

Trains that used these tracks ran both express and local, and there were branches that ran as far out as Warrenton and beyond Fredericksburg.

The map's purple line is the Potomac, Fredericksburg, & Piedmont (PF&P) line, whose acronym was sometimes jokingly said to mean "Poor Folks and Preachers." The PF&P was a vital link to Washington from a very poor part of Virginia.

The gray line from Union Sation is the WB&A, an interurban train that linked DC to Annapolis and Baltimore.

Maps in 1921 only showed geography, making service details nearly invisible. Times and locations were only available on arcane timetables that railroad employees had to interpret.


Left: A map of the land the tracks covered. Image from the David Rumsey Collection. Right: A timetable reflecting service in that area. Image from the Official Guide to the Railways.

The genius of a subway-style map is how it combines service information with geography, both of which riders need to get from A to B. Also, while surrounding geography is important, focusing on the rails themselves is the best way to illustrate the service we once had.

Similar maps for other cities

This is part of a bigger project whose goal is to map the 1921 railroads from the entire DC and Baltimore region. It's a sequel to the map I made of the San Francisco Bay Area's railroads in 1937.


San Francisco's railroads in 1937. Image by the author.

I still have a lot of decisions to make in order to finish the DC/Baltimore map. Should it show through-car service, where some passenger cars were passed along from train to train? If so, how would I actually show it? What about service frequency: should there be a visible difference between once-a-day, all-day, and other kinds of service?

These maps are still relevant today

Even with just the southern lines from Washington complete, it's easy to see how history of the region's railroads informs contemporary planning. Just recently, VRE announced it may extend service from the Manassas Line to Haymarket, reactivating a bit of a branch that once extended out beyond Front Royal. What are the other lines that we might want to start using again?

I just wrapped up a successful Kickstarter so I can print maps like these, and hopefully others from around the country, as posters. After all, it's one thing to have this information illustrated in a JPG for transit geeks to explore, but being able to put it on a wall would mean more people would see it.

This project's goal is to open up our region's transit history and spark conversations about what was and might be again. What else should this map include to help it achieve that goal?

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