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1201 E. Abingdon Drive in Old Town North (via Google Maps)

(Updated 5:25 p.m.) The owner of an aging office building in Old Town North wants it converted into a 136-unit apartment building, and credits the decision to the “ongoing and diminished office market and current high vacancy rate.”

The five-story, 112,000-square-foot office building was built in 1983. It’s owned by Principal Life Insurance Co. of Des Moines, Iowa, and managed by PF III Abingdon LLC, an affiliate of the D.C.-based real estate investment firm the Pinkard Group.

“Due to the on-going, diminished office market and current high vacancy rate, the Applicant seeks residential use to repurpose the building,” PF III Abingdon LLC said in its application.

The group wants approval to build a new 43,352-square-foot building wing at the south of the property, which is currently occupied by a surface parking lot. They want to increase the 50-foot height limit to 65 feet to accommodate a mechanical penthouse on top of the building, as well as make lobby, courtyard and other aesthetic improvements. The plan also includes seven on-site affordable housing apartments.

The plan will go to the Planning Commission on Tuesday, Feb. 6.

Despite having a high vacancy rate, the applicant said that traffic in the area will diminish.

“The surrounding streets will operate at a less congested state with residential use as compared to office use,” the applicant said.No new parking will be constructed as the existing parking is sufficient for the proposed number of residential units.”

The proposal joins a trend of local developers converting outdated offices to residential properties, as roughly a quarter of workers in the D.C. Metro area continue working remotely.

Image via Google Maps

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From protests over evictions to outrage over living conditions, complaints at the Southern Towers Apartment complex in Alexandria’s West End have become somewhat commonplace over the last few years.

The aging five-building complex is home to an estimated 7,000 people living in about 2,000 workforce apartments. One maintenance worker told ALXnow that he fixes at least two riser leaks per month on the property, the most recent of which affected 14 apartments in The Sherwood building last month.

One of those residents, Alex, was forced out of his three-bedroom apartment due to flooding for two weeks. He said that he potentially lost more than $1,000 in property.

“So much hot, steamy, rusty brown water started flowing down the wall that I could do nothing,” Alex said. “I moved my kids out of their rooms and the water just kept coming. I tried to bail it out but it was too much.”

CIM Group bought Southern Towers in 2020, and residents have protested living conditions and evictions for years, especially throughout the pandemic. This year alone, Southern Towers was visited by the director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency and CIM Group was asked to resolve its eviction fight by Virginia Senators Tim Kaine and Mark Warner.

There are five 1960s-era apartment buildings in the Southern Towers property — The Sherwood, The Stratford, Monticello, The Graham and The Ashlawn. The Graham was renovated by the previous owner before CIM Group bought the property, and it stands as a model for redevelopment of the other buildings, which will happen over time, Jerry Thomas, managing director for CIM’s on-site property management, told ALXnow.

Thomas said CIM Group is being responsive to resident concerns, while performing much-needed infrastructure improvements. Residents, however, contend that there are near-constant issues with mold, flooding, rodent infestations and more.

“Over time we have started the unit renovation process within multiple buildings,” Thomas said. “We’re about ready to undergo renovations to lobbies and corridors in The Sherwood and The Stratford. We’ve got some bigger infrastructure projects that are going on — new roofs at The Stratford, The Graham and The Sherwood, as well as new windows at The Ashlawn and Monticello buildings.”

Thomas said that the recent flooding incidents were due to aging building risers and the air conditioning system being switched over to heat for the fall and winter months. He also said that Sherwood and Stratford lobbies will soon be demolished and renovated in the hope of finishing construction by the end of the first quarter of 2024.

“You can’t replace all of the risers in a building,” Thomas said. “We’d replace all the risers if we were to empty the building, tear all the skin off the building, and do the building would have no residents in it, and then you’d replace all the pipe work. And that’s not an option.”

Thomas continued, “What happens is there’s 60 Different risers in a building. So, this last (flooding incident) one was like riser number 30. When riser number 30 broke, they will fix the entire riser for number 30… But then there’s 59 more risers in the building.”

There are no plans to establish resident groups to voice concerns to CIM Group, and residents are instead represented by activists from African Communities Together (ACT).

Solomon Ayalew, DMV director for the nonprofit, said that CIM Group needs to conduct a system-wide investigation to identify the pervasiveness of mold in apartment heating and air units.

“There needs to be more consistent checks around mold,” Ayalew said. “The pipes are ancient, and quicker responses to fixes and maintenance when needed. For example, there’s only one emergency staffer for the entire complex. If anything happens, one person has to take manage this entire complex, which is what happened with the recent flooding. One person tried to take care of 14 units. It’s just ridiculous.”

In September, multiple City Council members toured the property. Council Member Alyia Gaskins wrote CIM Group that she toured the buildings with her young children, and that one of them had a coughing fit due to mold.

“What we observed is unacceptable,” Gaskins wrote. “We also observed holes in walls and a major flood in the elevator. As a councilmember and mother, I do not want anyone living in conditions that compromise their health, safety and stability.”

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The Blake apartments (image via The Blake/Facebook)

A lawsuit filed by D.C. Attorney General Brian Schwalb over alleged artificial rent inflation will hit some of the region’s biggest landlords, including companies with properties in Alexandria, DCist first reported.

Schwalb’s lawsuit alleges the landlords of acting as a rent-setting cartel that use Texas-based property management software company RealPage to artificially drive up rent prices around the region.

According to the lawsuit:

In practice, RealPage has focused on recruiting into the cartel the buildings with the largest number of units (i.e., buildings with fifty or more units). In the District, a sizable
majority of units in large multifamily buildings — approximately 60% — set their prices using RealPage’s RM software.

In the Washington-Arlington-Alexandria Metropolitan Statistical Area, that number is even higher: over 90% of units in large buildings are priced using RealPage’s RM software.

As a practical matter, this leaves many District residents with no choice but to pay RealPage’s inflated rents.

The largest defendant in the lawsuit is Greystar, which manages six communities across Alexandria and uses RealPage RM Software for pricing:

  • Bailey’s Crossings Apartments
  • Del Ray Tower at Fuse
  • Notch8
  • Platform
  • Station 650 Apartments
  • The Blake

Other defendants in the lawsuit include Avenue5 Residential, which owns e-lofts in the West End, and Avalon Communities, which owns Avalon Potomac Yard. Another developer in the lawsuit, JBG Smith, has been part of plans to redevelop Potomac Yard.

“RealPage, the Defendant Landlords, and other Participating Landlords have unlawfully agreed to forgo competition in favor of using a central entity — the RealPage RM Software — to set apartment rents,” the lawsuit said “Their agreement is reflected in existing documents, has been
publicly acknowledged by cartel members, and is closely policed to ensure compliance.”

The lawsuit said RealPage suppresses landlords’ independent price decision-making and requires the landlords to impose rents generated by the company’s software. Landlords using the software have touted their ability to raise rents by 20% or more, the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit comes on the heels of years of rent increases, with many of the defendants in the lawsuit owning the Class A apartments in Alexandria that have seen an average 4.7% rent increase over the last year.

Image via The Blake/Facebook

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A packed house in Alexandria Council Chambers for the Planning Commission’s vote on the controversial Zoning for Housing proposal, Nov. 1, 2023 (staff photo by James Cullum)

The Alexandria Planning Commission unanimously endorsed a sweeping overhaul of the city’s zoning ordinances on Wednesday night, giving City Council the green light to vote on it later this month.

There were more than 100 attendees and 51 speakers at the Planning Commission’s five hour public hearing, which ran after midnight. The speakers were a mixed bunch, with about half supporting the legislation and the other half opposing it.

The Zoning for Housing overhaul is intended to expand new affordable housing opportunities and would reshape a host of ordinances, including changes to single-family zoning, expansion of transit-oriented development, reducing parking requirements for single-family homes and analyzing office-to-residential conversions.

“I think we’re going to have to be nimble with this,” said Planning Commission Chair Nathan Macek. “I do think, though, we want to be careful with this particular market, and given the challenges that this distressed office space has already, we just have to be sensitive of the fact that we not douse the potential for the development because we’re trying to put too many constraints on it.”

City staff tabled one initiative — a bonus height amendment that incentivizes developers to add affordable housing to projects in exchange for two additional stories of construction in areas where height limits are 45 feet or more. Del Ray residents protested the move, with many saying that its approval would destroy the neighborhood.

“Staff’s recommendation is to table this proposal as several existing zoning provisions, that are not proposed to change under this package of reforms, would severely curtail this provision’s regulatory and financial viability,” according to a staff report.

Prior to the meeting, Mayor Justin Wilson said on social media that the city’s zoning laws are outdated. Wilson said that the proposed policies will desegregate the city, and that a number of zoning ordinances in the 20th century divided the city by race.

Alexandria’s affordable housing crisis

Alexandria is currently experiencing an affordable housing crisis, and lost 90% of its affordable housing stock between 2000 and 2017. The city has pledged to produce or develop thousands of units to meet 2030 regional housing goal set by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.

According to the city:

According to U.S. Census figures, nearly twenty percent of Alexandria’s 80,000 households with incomes up to $75,000 are cost burdened. Approximately 19,000 households are paying more than the federal government indicates they should for housing, leaving little in their households budgets for necessities. The City projects that the number of households in Alexandria will rise to about 100,000 households by 2035. The longstanding imbalance between housing supply and demand, exacerbated by stagnating wage growth particularly in low to moderate-wage sectors, is a key factor underlying the high cost of housing, imperiling our ability to grow an economy that depends on a diversity of skillsets.

Alexandria middle school teacher David Paladin Fernandez said that many of his fellow teachers can’t afford to live in the city.

“I know multiple educators that live outside of Alexandria, some as far away as Fredericksburg,” he said. “They don’t live in these places because it’s convenient. They live in these places because that is where they can afford to live, meaning they will not be able to connect to the community in the same way a resident can. They will not have the benefit of the students and parents seeing them as fellow citizens of Alexandria, despite the fact that they’ve chosen to give their lives to serve the city.”

The city conducted dozens of public meetings for more than a year on the Zoning for Housing proposals, but only released a draft plan in September.

“The sessions have focused on general issues and goals, not specific proposals,” said North Ridge resident Sonny Yoder, who asked for a deferral. “Full disclosure came only 30 days ago.”

Luca Gattoni-Celli, founder of YIMBYs of Northern Virginia, said that the city can solve its affordable housing crisis and shouldn’t fear the solution. Gattoni-Celli lives in the West End, surrounded by thousands of city residents living in apartments, he said.

“Living near thousands of other human beings is nothing but a blessing for me and my family,” he said. “It’s wonderful.”

West End resident Kursten Phelps said that she got lucky eight years ago when she got a $5,000 raise and that she and her family were then able to afford to buy their home.

“We got very, very lucky,” Phelps said. “Many of our kids friends are being squeezed out of Alexandria because their rents are rising and there’s no available homes in their budget.”

Ian Smith, 24, has been living in an Alexandria duplex for the last three years, and said that young residents find it nearly impossible to afford to live in the city.

“Even though we get college degrees and work hard for our competitive jobs in the DMV area, basic aspirations like owning a home and starting our own families seem completely out of reach due to the cost of living,” Smith said. “We desperately need housing. This initiative is a great first step.”

Many city residents pleaded with the Planning Commission to defer the proposals, and said that the public has not had enough time to discuss the draft plans.

Roy Byrd, a 25-year city resident, is chair of The Coalition for a Livable Alexandria, a group founded this year largely in opposition of these rezoning issues. He said that there are several unknown variables that the public needs to understand.

“Will the median cost of a single-family home decline or increase by how much year-over-year over the next 10 years?” Byrd asked. “Will the proposed zoning changes result in an increase in revenue for the city, and if so, by how much during the 10 year period, and will it also result in lower property taxes and reduced fees for residents?”

City Council will conduct a public hearing on the Zoning for Housing package on Tuesday, Nov. 14, followed by a public hearing on Nov. 18 and a vote on Nov. 28.

More details on the draft initiative are below the jump.

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Rendering of Reese, an apartment building in the Carlyle Crossing development, courtesy Stonebridge

Alexandria renting units in Class A apartments — newer, high-rise buildings — have seen their rent increase by an average of 4.7% over the last year, real estate website UrbanTurf reported.

Those Class A units comprise the majority of new construction around the region and are generally developments built after 1991 and featuring amenities. The effective rent per month in one of those units in Alexandria, which includes a mix of studios, one and two-bedroom rentals, is $2,475 per month.

That increase is one of the sharpest increases in the region, behind only Upper Georgia Avenue (increased by 5.6%) and Bethesda (increased by 5.2%).

Rents for those types of units increased across most of the region, only decreasing slightly in NoMa and the Capitol Hill neighborhoods of D.C.

Rents for Class B units, generally mid/high-rise units, has also increased over the last years, rising by an average of 18% in the region. UrbanTurf reported last year that West Alexandria saw a 116.8% increase in Class B unit rents while Arlandria saw a 108.1% increase.

Anita Morrison, principal at Partnerships for Economic Solutions, said in a panel earlier this year that despite a surge in new residential units being built in Alexandria, rents have continued to climb.

“The fastest growing age category is people ages 65-74 and children under 20, but folks 20-24 dropped in Alexandria and 25-34 did not grow as much as the rest of the market,” Morrison said. “We think that’s a reflection of not being able to buy here.”

Morrison said the problem is that, even with the new housing units, Alexandria’s housing supply isn’t keeping pace with the demand.

“The scale of developments haven’t met the need,” Morrison said. “We’re always running a few steps behind the demand. It’s about getting enough supply to increase vacancy rates and create competition, but we’ve never moved the needle enough with supply to see that happen.”

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720 N. Fairfax Street in Old Town North (via Google Maps)

A makeover has been proposed for a 53-year-old office building in Old Town North.

The owners of the former home of the Alexandria Community Services Board at 720 North St. Asaph Street want the building converted into a 12-unit multifamily apartment building with ground floor commercial space.

The owners, Joseph “Teddy” Kim and Phil Kang want to convert the three-story, 31,515-square foot commercial office building into 12 two-bedroom residential units with ground floor commercial space.

“With the proposed conversion of the existing 31,515-square foot commercial office building, the building will contain approximately 19,610 square feet of residential floor area at a 1.25 FAR (floor area ratio), with 5,889 square feet, or a 0.38 FAR, of existing commercial use to remain,” according to the special use permit application. “In summary, the proposed requests will facilitate the adaptive re-use of an aging office building to a multifamily residential building that will enhance the existing site and bring quality residential units to an active and vibrant neighborhood.”

The value of the property has gone down since it was bought for $5.8 million in 2005. It was last assessed at $5.2 million in January — $1.8 million for the land and $3.4 million for the building, according to land use records.

The proposal will go to the Planning Commission on Dec. 5.

Image via Google Maps

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City leaders broke ground on Housing Alexandria‘s 474-unit affordable apartment complex in Arlandria on Wednesday, capping off the largest project of its kind in Alexandria history.

It will be 2026 by the time residents start moving into the two-building, 36,000 square-foot complex, Housing Alexandria said in a release. The buildings, named Sansé and Naja, will be located near the corner of W. Glebe Road and Mount Vernon Avenue. The property will include a large underground parking garage and 34,000 square feet of commercial space, which will include childcare and health care services, according to Housing Alexandria.

“This is not just the largest affordable housing project the city has ever undertaken,” Mayor Justin Wilson said at the groundbreaking. “This is a project
adjacent to some of the best transit investments we have around and within a mile of the new (Potomac Yard) Metro station. It is adjacent to some of our biggest and growing job centers, in Potomac Yard and along Route 1.”

Housing Alexandria first moved into Arlandria in Feb. 2022 when it bought a 14-story apartment building at 511 Four Mile Road.

“The opportunity to develop 474 affordable units and commercial space doesn’t come along very often,” said Aaron Remolona, Housing Alexandria’s vice president of development and acquisitions. “We are not new to this housing development, but we are new to this neighborhood… I want to thank the organizations in this community that have been willing to help us, teach us, and connect us – namely Casa Chirilagua and Tenants and Workers United.”

Evelyn Urrutia, executive director of Tenants and Workers United, said that Wednesday was a historic day.

“We say today is a historic day for us because this project will truly benefit the families that we work with,” she said. “The work reflects the government and development partners, but it is also the work of our community. This project is a reflection of the type of housing we need across the city. We hope this is just the beginning, and that this project will serve as an example for all who want to work in our city.”

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(Updated at 4 p.m. on Oct. 18) For at least five weeks, Loren DePina and her family will be forced live in a one-bedroom apartment until flooding damage in her three-bedroom Southern Towers apartment is fixed.

DePina’s and 13 other apartments at Southern Towers’ Sherwood building (5001 Seminary Road) were significantly damaged early Sunday morning by a water leak that worked its way from the eighth floor of the 15-story building all the way to the first floor. Video of the damage showed residents wading through inches of water in apartments and hallways and flooded elevators.

“I’m not paying rent for November,” DePina said. “That’s not happening. Five weeks is putting us right before Thanksgiving.”

On Monday, DePina got keys to a one-bedroom apartment where her family of four will have to live for an estimated five weeks. She said that building management were not responsive for a full day after flooding started.

CIM Group emailed residents Monday morning at 8 a.m. that the flooding was caused by air conditioning pipes that date back to when the building was constructed in the 1960s, and that residents will be relocated.

“To address this issue, we allocate substantial financial resources, amounting to tens of thousands of dollars on a weekly basis, toward the ongoing repair and maintenance of these risers,” CIM Group recently wrote in a letter to City Council. “This often involves the necessity to access and open walls within resident units for repair purposes and can take as long as four weeks.”

CIM Group bought Southern Towers in 2020, and residents have protested living conditions and evictions for years, especially throughout the pandemic. This year alone, Southern Towers was also visited by the director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency and CIM Group was asked to resolve its eviction fight by Virginia Senators Tim Kaine and Mark Warner.

African Communities Together sent an email to CIM Group asking for the following:

  • Immediately relocate tenants to habitable units on the property. At a minimum, tenants must be moved into units that are comparable. If tenants are moved into bigger or renovated units (when they previously were in smaller or unrenovated units), tenants should not be charged higher rent or higher utility bills.
  • Residents who had to move into a hotel, Air BnB, or other lodging to escape the flooding should be fully reimbursed by CIM.
  • Rent for the month of November should be waived for all affected tenants to accommodate the financial impact of the flooding.
  • Water and electricity bills should be totally comped in next month’s utility bill for all tenants to accommodate the instability in charges brought on by the flooding.
  • Management must be transparent with the tenants at all stages of this process. Tenants must be given consistent and clear notice about: what caused the problem; what CIM is doing to fix it; how long repairs will take; and any other relevant updates. “Consistent and clear” notice shall also include translated messages for tenants in need.

Last month, Vice Mayor Amy Jackson and Council Members Alyia Gaskins, Canek Aguirre, Sarah Bagley, Kirk McPike and John Taylor Chapman toured the property. Gaskins wrote CIM Group that she toured the buildings with her two young children, and that one of them had a coughing fit due to mold.

“What we observed is unacceptable,” Gaskins wrote. “We also observed holes in walls and a major flood in the elevator. As a councilmember and mother, I do not want anyone living in conditions that compromise their health, safety and stability.”

Bethany Chang is a principal at CIM Group, and said in a statement that the incident was “incredibly inconvenient.”

“As any homeowner or renter knows, sometimes maintenance issues happen like pipes bursting, and it is always incredibly inconvenient and unpleasant when it happens,” Chang said. “Our team at Southern Towers is working diligently to ensure that all impacted residents are provided with timely repairs and, if needed, temporary housing. When this leak occurred, our team was in touch with the residents that day and began mitigation and repairs immediately. They have not ceased working since, and they will continue to work until the job is complete.”

Gaskins said residents have contacted her about subpar resolution to maintenance requests, inconsistent heating and cooling systems and high utility rates.

CIM Group wrote a lengthy response to Gaskins and said that they bought a derelict property and are the victim of disinformation from advocacy groups.

The full response from CIM Group to Gaskins is below.

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Apartment kitchen, via Naomi Hébert/Unsplash

It’s becoming increasingly common in Alexandria to live alone.

A new study from the investment firm SmartAsset examined census data from 2016 to 2021 and found, in a study of 342 U.S. cities, Alexandria has the second most growth in people living alone. The number one spot — discrepancy about calling it a city aside — goes to neighboring Arlington.

There was a nearly 3x increase in people living alone with 46.5% of households in Alexandria consisting of one person.

Chart of people living alone (image via SmartAsset)

According to SmartAsset, the largest proportional increase was for single women living alone.

“Single-woman households are most prominent in Richmond, VA (28.00%); Washington, D.C. (26.74%); and Alexandria, VA (26.23%),” the report said. “These areas also saw the largest increases in the proportion of single women living alone over five years, with greater than 15% of households added to this cohort.”

Efficiencies — apartments intended for single occupants — make up a large part of many new developments. A study of apartment sizes in the 100 largest U.S. cities found that while 1-bedroom apartments and studio apartments made up only 50% of the apartments in developments back in 2013, in 2022, they made up 57%.

The end of the report, 2021, was in the second year of the Covid pandemic, which may have impacted some of those figures.

Via Naomi Hébert/Unsplash

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Residents of an Arlandria affordable apartment complex say the new owner is drastically, and illegally, raising rent and not notifying tenants within 60 days.

Potomac West Apartments LLC bought the four-building, 60-unit apartment complex in June. Last month, residents with expiring leases were notified via letter of a rent increase.

“We just wanted to say thank you for being a wonderful resident of Potomac West Apartments,” begins an Aug. 1 letter to a resident. “We are planning on upgrading the property to include new washing and drying machines, renovated laundry rooms, landscaping upgrades and much more.”

The property manager then reminded residents in the letter that they must provide a 60-day notice if they are going to vacate.

Residents protested the action on Tuesday afternoon with a rally organized by Tenants and Workers United (TWU). The property is directly across the street from Housing Alexandria’s massive affordable apartment complex development at the corner of Mount Vernon Avenue and Glebe Road.

Jose Coca saw his rent increase by more than $500. The 85-year-old custodian at the Pentagon has lived on the property for more than 30 years and said that no improvements have been made to the property.

“When we go to the leasing office about a maintenance issue, they don’t pay attention to us,” Coca said.

Medical assistant Soraida Cruz has lived in her two-bedroom apartment for 18 years. She said her rent is being increased from $1,498 to $1,725 per month, and that Potomac West Apartments and property manager Chapman Management are not responsive.

“It hurts,” Cruz said. “It really does. I’m the only one working. If we had better conditions, paying less than what they are raising right now, I would continue living here, but it’s tough.”

Cruz also said that the buildings have rodent and maintenance issues that residents pay out of pocket to fix.

Larisa Zehr, an attorney from Legal Aid Justice Center, said that the new apartment building owners are breaking the law by not giving tenants at least 60 days notice of a rent increase.

“This makes common sense and it’s a basic protection for tenants,” Zehr said. “That did not happen here. As this area sees increased economic interest, we’re seeing this pattern developers are hiking rents and driving out long term stable families. This is purely profit-driven. We see rents increase without any improvement to living conditions.”

Zehr continued, “Potomac West Apartments is intended to be long-term affordable housing, which is subsidized by the Low Income Housing Tax Credit Program. That means the owner has to cap rent at 60% of area median income. In Northern Virginia, as low income people are pushed out and displaced by wealthier households, that number keeps going up. The cap is not low enough to protect working class families like the families in this neighborhood.”

TWU mailed two letters to the property manager and owners asking for a sit-down to discuss rent increases and tenant needs. They did not receive a response.

“I know it’s not easy to be here after you work two jobs, after you cook for your family,” TWU Executive Director Evelyn Urritria told the protestors. “You are here because you care about your housing situation. It’s unfair what’s happening, it’s unjust what’s happening.”

Potomac West Apartments LLC and Chapman Management did not return calls for comment.

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