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University City is booming. But will it explode?

The growl of bulldozers Is the sound of money

Just about everything this city knows about suburban living (comparable to what Milwaukee knows about beer) has gone into the making of the southern end of University city, ten miles south of downtown and a few miles inland of La Jolla.

A neighborhood without billboards, without the white schoolroom trailers that betoken overcrowding, with just the right number of grocery stores and service stations, a post office and an extra spacious library, in just the right locations so that one may walk or bike or drive (probably drive) to do one's errands or serve one's children with the least possible clot of urban flow, this part of University City turned out well because it is somewhat isolated and self-contained, being moated by canyons and freeways, but moreover because it was the first fully planned suburb in the city's history (the first to incorporate the novel concept of "open space"), and because it was built by relatively few hands.

Nearly the same conditions apply to the relatively undeveloped northern part of University City on the mesa east of Interstate 5 and UCSD. But instead of building another single family suburb, the developers have the chance to create a new kind of setting — so new it has no graceful name. If it works it will be something more varied and exciting than a suburb but less troubled than a downtown. A suburban city? A subcity? An upburb?

The University City Planning Group, a newly elected body of neighbors and business people, has just completed the last in a long series of revisions to the community plan and calls the thing to be centered in the vicinity of Genesee Avenue and La Jolla Village Drive and "urban node." This is technochatter for a bound-town on the edge of the city; it will look like our present downtown yet will spring from a suburb of schools, dwellings, churches, and a shopping center.

About half of the people on the planning group feel the change will be less than splendid. Particularly those who reside in University City, and who will have to put up with the pollution and traffic problems predicted in the plan's environmental impact report feel that their neighborhoods are being manhandled by so-called market forces which to them look like greed.

Then there are critics outside the community, particularly those attached to the University of California who wonder whatever happened to the simple, inexpensive neighborhoods that were supposed to serve their institution, its students, full professors, and lean lecturers. Roger Revelle, former director of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and a founder of UCSD, told a group of La Jollans last year that the development of University City has left him "bitterly disappointed."

The half dozen developers are riding out the criticism. In a way they're above it. They have lofty reputations, for elsewhere in the country they have done good work: Ernest Hahn with University Towne Center, Harry L. Summers with Rancho Bernardo, Genstar Corporation with Racho Penasquitos. And anyways the community plan was approved but the city council in June with only one dissenting vote (Mayor Hedgecock's), which means that even if many individual projects need final approval, the overall development has been sanctioned and indeed has already begun.

One day in mid-August, earthmovers bellied into the corner of Genesee Avenue and La Jolla Village Drive to break ground for an office park, the Plaza at La Jolla Village. In the earliest community plan of 1960, this crossroads was to have been like hundreds of others in San Diego, with a gas station on each corner and a supermarket or two on the side. Instead, a hugely successful shopping mall, University Towne Centre, went in on the southeast corner and transformed the other three corners into very choice land.

The Plaza at La Jolla Village, to the north of University Towne Centre, will begin with two office buildings and a restaurant. Each of the buildings will enclose 45,000 square feet of office space, which is the equivalent square footage of a Safeway "superstore." Eastward on the same seventeen-acre parcel will be five more office buildings, various lawns, and a pond. Two buildings will cover 45,000 square feet each, another 60,000 square feet, and the two centerpiece buildings, each eighteen stories high, will include 300,000 square feet apiece, for a total of 840,000 square feet — the equivalent of 19 Safeways or 15 percent of the total office space in downtown San Diego.

The third corner at this crossroads is a vacant parcel of weeds and a shade-less bus stop that borders the University of California. Standing on this corner with the bulldozers at your back, you might assume that the university was distant — that dark green hill two miles to the west of the other side of Interstate 5, where the stringent tops of buildings stick up from the eucalyptus plantation. But the camps actually straddles the freeway and spreads almost to your feet. The university's backyard comprises a ball field, a golf driving range, acres of buckwheat, and some two-story apartments for married students. From here you can just make out their windows.

If ever there were a place where the campus and University City were intended to meet, it was here, where the planners saw a natural connection between the undeveloped end of the university and the soon-to-be-built suburb, where each would grow in a way that complemented the other. "It should be toward this area that a professor, a student, a resident of the community, or a casual visitor would naturally gravitate and find himself at the center of activity. " said the 1971 version of the community plan, which went on to call this focal point the "town center core." It was to be arena, in effect, where idealism touched gloves with the marketplace.

Lomas Santa Fe Development which acquired the twenty-seven acres on the northwest corner, brought forward a plan that looked good to nearly everyone but its future business partners. The plan ventured to mix apartments, condominiums, shops, a hotel, and a supermarket in one project. The apartments would be for students, the condominiums for university employees and other professionals, the hotel for visitors to the university or for the families of patients at the nearby Scripps Memorial Hospital, and the shops and the supermarket for everyone. Furthermore, the design mixed the uses vertically, putting the apartments over the shops and over the grocery store to avoid the usual bane of mixed-use projects in which the commercial side of the development goes dead after business hours and makes the residential side seem an unpeopled, spooky place to live. At Brittany Village, as the project was called, the ideal was to have activity at all hours for a variety of people, to give the place a cosmopolitan spirit.

In 1979 the project had been approved by the city and was set to break ground when the lenders looked Scotch at the deal and decided against buying into it. First they found that potential shopkeepers disliked the design because it put them in competition with University Towne Centre. Then they found that hotel and supermarket chains insisted on owning their buildings and sharing them with no one, certainly not apartment renters. Finally, they found that title insurance companies, which anoint real estate dealings with written guarantees on who owns what, shook their heads at the ownership of shared buildings. Having retailers and residents in the same artspace, an idea so familiar in traditional cities, was apparently too new for a "town center core."

The developer pulled the sheet over Brittany village and brought out a project whose design has been approved by the city planning department and will probably be endorsed by the market. The new project is called Regents Park. Its apartments and condominiums are separate from the hotel and other commercial buildings. Its retail space compared to that of Brittany Village, has been reduced from 91,500 square feet to 20,000, but the space allotted to office and banking has increased from zero-square feet to half a million. That makes a total of 1.34 million square feet of office space, or twenty five percent of the office space in downtown San Diego, or the equivalent of thirty supermarkets worth of cubicles and suites to be built on one intersection near the university's back door. "I ask you, who is all this office space supposed to serve?" said Margo S. Rebar, the University Community Planning Group's vice chairwoman, who was in her kitchen one morning wrapping pork roasts for the freezer while her children paraded around with harmonicas. "Is it supposed to serve the university? Come on. University people couldn't possibly use all that space and neither could business people related to the university. It's not community use; it's regional. What they're building up there is a regional center for offices and banks.

Rebar lives in the southern part of University City in a two-story tract home that cost well over $100,000 and has a built-in can opener. She grew up on a thirty acre farm in New Hampshire never imagining that she would one day live in suburban California, but her husband, a doctor, joined the UCSD School of Medicine in 1976, and after first looking for a home in Clairemont, the family settled in University City. "Some people call it a poor man's La Jolla," said Rebar, "but I don't see it that way. I like it better. There's less traffic and the weather is nicer.

With the average daily number of vehicles on La Jolla Village Drive expected to reach 55,000 by the end of the decade, make it one of the busiest streets in San Diego, Rebar's concerns on the planning group are to keep the traffic down and the pollution away. The environmental impact report suggests three means to these ends: making new developments smaller, public transit bigger, or roads more efficient. So far the last has prevailed, more pedestrian bridges and state of the art signals will be installed, and there is talk of trying a left turn pocket three lanes wide, which would be unusual even in Los Angeles.

Norma Carey, another member of the planning group, helped pioneer the new suburb in northern University City six- years ago, moving there from Boston to be near a relative. She owns a condo on the sunny edge of an arroyo brimming with dry country scents. She thinks fondly of her younger days watching her fiancé, a ballplayer on the Red Sox farm club, playing games in Fenway Park. She is pleased with where she lives, but given her personality, she seems to have gotten her contentment the Celtics' way...she muscled for it.

"We fought them on building a project at the end of our canyon, and won, " she said, smiling around the end of a cigarette holder. "We fought them for a hundred-foot setback and landscaping in front of the science research park, here behind our project, and won. " A puff of smoke rose toward the ceiling. "And just today, I called the gas and electric company to see when they're going to go underground with their utility lines in the canyon, like they said they would. They said it was going to cost money! Huh. They said they would. We'll see about that..."

She looked confident of winning that one, too. These are skirmishes against a changing adversary, sometimes a developer, sometimes the city, but the battle is against an invested trend. Carey moved to the scrubby mesa knowing that there was no drugstore or supermarket, no gas station or post office within two miles, but expecting these to come in like wisdom teeth as the suburb matured. So far — nothing. A gas station and car wash opened not long ago, but they are two miles east on Miramar Road. The 30,000 square-foot grocery store in Brittany Village has been reduced to 12,000 square foot convenience store in the design for Regents Park. For years to come, Carey must continue to drive once a week to the Safeway and the Thrifty in Rebar's neighborhood, two and a half miles south, avoiding the peak hours of traffic.

It seems logical that grocery stores and the like will find space in north University City as the population increases, since these businesses normally locate according to the "bedroom count" in a neighborhood. In 1980 about 11,000 people were living in 4000 apartments and condominiums; at present another 6000 dwellings are planned by Harry L. Summers, Inc. and the Bren Company. According to the latest community plan, the triangle of land bounded by Rose Canyon, Interstate 5 and Interstate 805 will eventually contain 80,000 residents. Developers and the media have taken to calling this area the golden triangle.

But for now, north University City is in an awkward stage, cocooned between what it was supposed to be and the fanciful thing some planners still hope it might become. The developers by and large are optimistic. George Lattimer, vice president for Harry L. Summers and a member of the planning group, was expansive on the phone one afternoon.

"We started with the idea that a student would be able to start at the end of the campus there where the married student housing is, and walk all the way to University Towne Centre and beyond without crossing a street at traffic grade, using pedways and separate paths, and by God they'll be able to do it"

"And when all the projects are done," he went on, "a person coming in from outside the community will be able to get off the freeway, park his car, spend the entire day shopping, working, having dinner, catching a movie, whatever, and never get back in his car till he leaves...and on top of everything, he'll enjoy walking around because it'll be easy, and other people will be doing it too."

Lattimer was aware that this kind of gospel preceded the advent of other developments, notably Century City in west Los Angeles, for he brought it up right away. "I don't like the compariosn with Century City," he said, "although I like parts of Century City; it did some things well for its time. I just think we can do it better."

Century City is a riverbank incessantly threatened by a stream of cars. North University City has better freeway access, which makes it easier to take traffic away as well as bring it in. However, Lattimer's point had more to do with the way that University City, a larger and more complex undertaking, will be accomplished by only a "few strong players" working loosely as a team through the community planning group. "Typical fashion," he said, "you get a bunch of developers together and one guy doesn't much care what the others are doing, unless it’s going to hurt him someway. But here you've got developers asking each other to comment on their projects." Looking over the drawings for the Plaza at La Jolla, Summers' huge office park, the landscape architect foresaw a problem with the shadows cast by the tallest building. He suggested a solution to the developer, who agreed to reorient them.

"You get a few strong players," said Lattimer, "and they can take the trouble, and the time, to do things right, and they will be done right."

But right for whom? Some residents feel that the developers have flown off the handle in responding to market pressures and have bent the plan out of shape. "We begged and begged the Summers people to add some housing to their project," said Mary Manaster, a planner in the city's housing commission, which champions more dwellings for the unaffluent. "But they wouldn't listen," she said.

The developers point out that whatever the marketplace, University City remains a planned community. "People who moved up there four, five years ago must have seen those wide streets, and what did they think?" said Lattimer. "That they were going to serve a few thousand condominiums? No — the streets were planned wide for the development that was to follow. It was an example of good planning."

"Cumulative planning" is the phase one hears at city hall. It describes how planning is actually done; not once and forever but once every few years, so that the latest plan is an overlay on the previous one, like a diggings at which one town has been founded on top of another. The irony of a changing plan is that it never turns out as expected.

Most community plans, however, do have a bedrock of ideals and assumptions, and University City's is clear — if not on paper, then in the person of the amateur city planner who laid most of it down. He is not a public official, has not held elected office and does not live in University City. He is Robert Hollis Hamstra, and was 51 years old when he accepted his appointment to the community planning group as a general member in January of 1969. South University City was developing rapidly and had its own civic association of residents and business people, but the thousands of acres north of Rose Canyon and east of the university were vacant. It was apparent by then that UCSD would not grow as rapidly as expected. Enrollment at most of the UC campuses had slid into a trough after the passing swell of population following World War II, and the young campus at UCSD, established in 1959, had only 6000 students ten years later. Meanwhile, suburbs of single family homes were unrolling toward the university from the south, covering Clairemont and south University City. The land near the campus was next, and it was time to plan for development.

As nobody lived in the area, the city planning department appointed only landowners and interested citizens to the informal group that was to revise the community plan. Hamstra's wife worked at the university, which gave him some interest in the plan. HE had come to the department's attention, though, for having led the opposition to a development that threatened the view from his backyard above Gilman Drive, west of Interstate 5. Sunset Petroleum had intended to develop its land on Gilman into stores and filling stations. Hamstra and others defeated the proposal at city hall, earning him some attention. But not very much; at the first two meetings of the new group, the secretary noted his presence but misspelled his name. At the eighth meeting the group elected him chairman.

He is a psychologist, licensed in California and trained at the University of Chicago. He has a practiced manner of speaking, so that his tone, the way he would indicate his mood or how he's receiving you, changes nimbly. Now he's casual, now direct, now annoyed, no ingratiating.

Nearly all of his clients have been businessmen. In Chicago early in his career, he became an associate of Robert N. McMurry, and original in applying psychology to business and management, and for the firm of McMurry Hamstra and Associates (known as McMurry Associates since 1958) Hamstra traveled to Paris, London, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York establishing branch offices.

Once in La Jolla on family business, he noticed some houses going in near the university, parked his car and walked on the site, over ditches and lumber, deciding then and there to buy. Much later he planted birches in his backyard, possibly to remind him of his native South Dakota, but they are dying in the heat. More successfully he tried some torn pines, letting one grow into a tree and training the other into an effective hedge between him and his neighbor. He seems to enjoy artifice his study gives onto a little path screened by trees and reaching the walkway from the street, so that, doctorlike, he could dismiss one visitor from a consultation while receiving another from the front door.

Since his wife died three years ago, he lives alone, but while she was well and he was semiretired, they made a passion of planning for University City traveling to collect ideas. This, and his experience of living in great cities, and moreover his knowledge of the business world, gave Hamstra the motivation and the wherewithal to call shots. He was a dominating chairman who knew and liked businessmen, and who knew how to get something down in a meeting at lunch. He compares his style to Pete Wilson's.

On assuming the chair, Hamstra divided the group's twenty members into subcommittees and put himself in charge of the most influential, the one concerning land use. The University of California thought enough of the group to send regularly a representative of the president's office in Berkeley. Early on the representative showed maps of the towns around Harvard, Berkley and UCLA. Later Hamstra presented his subcommittee's findings which became the premises on which decisions were built.

First, the operations of Miraman Naval Air Station three miles east of the planning area put a single family suburb out of question. The Navy had had a long-standing agreement with the university to direct its flights northward and after takeoff to avoid flying over classrooms. (On occasions when a pilot would forget his starboard turn, Chancelior I.S. Galbraith would telephone the base commander to get that river on the stick.) The jets dragged noise over the northern corner of the planning area, which had the twofold effect of making land in the noise zone more suitable for commercial development than for housing, and of making the noise-free land more scarce and hence more suitable for intensive housing such as apartments and condominiums. These in any case seemed the right choices for a university community needed dwellings both cheap and abundant.

Second, all developments should coalesce into a self-sustaining community, a town in its own right, of such interest and density that free-floating university people would naturally gravitate toward its mass.

Barely had the planning group adopted these premises than a challenge came from a powerful developer who wanted to build on a key piece of land — the intersection of Genesee Avenue and La Jolla Village Drive (then called Miramar Road). This crossroads had long been designed as a commercial center for the suburb to be, but it was here that Hamstra wanted to build the center of his college town, the so-called "town center core."

The landowner was Irvin J. Kahn, an attorney who had owned a part of the local minor league farm team, the Padres, and had come by an unexpected piece of capital when the city condemned some of the team owner's land near the Marine Corps Recruit Depot and bought it at market value. Kahn had invested the money in building houses in the new suburb of Clairemont. With partners he built 12,000 homes there in the 1950s, and had bought land northward in University City to keep his developments rolling. At his death in 1975 he had evaluated his real estate ventures throughout the nation at one billion dollars.

For his intersection near the university he had in mind a huge shopping center which, given the freeway access to the property from I-805 to the east I-5 to the west, was the natural choice. Some residents and business people in south University City made it clear to Hamstra's group that they favored a community center, something to serve a college town and nothing more. Between these extremes was Hamstra. Because of the property's commercial designation, which has but few restrictions that apply to residential land, the planning groups power to call for a community center or a regional center was almost meaningless. On a piece of residential property the group could designate one part for high-density housing and another for low density, and these distinctions would translate into differences in value. But on commercial property the arbiter was more the developer himself. Hamstra's group could not tell Kahn what to do, therefore it had to win him over, for whatever Kahn built at the intersection would stake out the ground for future planning decisions. Hamstra had to act while Kahn's plans were still fluid, and there seemed only one thing to do — go to lunch.

They met in the restaurant attached to Kahn's hotel, the Sands, on Kearny Mesa, and Kahn explained his position and Hamstra explained his, and so on, and so on. Hamstra tried to convince him that an interesting "town center" didn't have to be small, that a fair-size shopping center could fit in the plan, but Kahn didn't se it. Finally according to Hamstra, Kahn spread his hands and said, "Ham, if you can explain to me what a town center is supposed to be, I'll build it. But I don't know what you are talking about."

Hamstra laid the challenge before the group at its next session, animating something between two visitors who were vividly unlike. Mary Manaster, now a planner with the housing commission, was then a housewife with three small children at home in south University City. Her husband is a mathematician at UCSD who had encouraged her to attend the group's meetings to get away from the kids and who had backed it with offers to babysit. Manaster is a sturdy, compact woman with a tremendously alert face and short, dark hair. Across the room she met the eye of Judith Munk, who is nearly six feet tall, has long, fair hair, and whose bearing seemed to Manaster attractive patrician.

Munk's husband is a geophysicist associated with Scripps. She had some experience in architecture and Manaster had a master's in city planning from Cornell, and knowing just that much about each other, the two fell to talking about how they might definte a town center in the planning area.

Before the group's next session they met several times, once while Munk, who is gaited by polio, drove Manaster and herself through the buckwheat and sage, scouting locales. They decided that the town center should occupy the most prominent ground, which was a rocky spine just east of the commercial intersection. In an eight-page paper they described their ideal town center and named it "Mesa Rise."

It differed from the ordinary shopping center in two ways: It subordinated cars to pedestrians, and it imagined an unheard-of variety of shops and businesses, through which it would be possible "to conduct all the activities of one's life" and no less. In form it was a series of connected plazas with a roadway underneath and buildings that encouraged a very mixed marketplace, so that a shopper could look over some cucumbers or some stock quotations in about the same spot.

Hamstra loved it. "You call yourself architects?" Manaster remembers him saying to some visitors presenting a commercial project. "Look at what these housewives did in two weeks. Where are your ideas?"

Though few of Mesa Rise's practical details were incorporated in the reformed community plan of 1971, the project's spirit was. The group's assumed task ended with the completion of the plan but the group did not disassemble. Hamstra wanted to see that the plan was followed, and for the next few years the group involved itself in the planning of University Towne Centre.

When it opened in 1977 it was probably the most innovative shopping center in the nation. It included apartment buildings and single family homes, separated by an arroyo that had been landscaped into a quiet park with a switchback walkway trailing into a meander. It had community rooms, a childcare center, and a museum. And its pedestrian mall zigzagged from one to another, like Stroget, the shopping street in Copenhagen that Hamstra had visited with his wife.

The center was an immediate success and a vindication of the planning group's ideas — but it was still a shopping center and not the heard of a university town. It had no library, no postal branch, no supermarket, no medical clinic. What it did have was a great freeway location and pizzazz. The planning group had not had in mind to create a wee college town with a few thousand people — "We never thought on small lines," said Manaster — but the success of University Towne Center and other market factors drove land prices from the suburbs to the big city.

"Between 1975 and 1979, optimism in the area went wild," said Alan Nevin, senior vice president with the Goodkin Group, real estate analysts based in Del Mar. He admitted that some optimism was due to "hype from realtors and brokers" and from others in the land business-- "Everybody was to blame," he said. And one effect of the rising values, he went on, was to make housing one of least attractive alternatives to a builder, and office space on of the more attractive. You don't have nearly as many restrictions with commercial buildings," he said. "They're much simpler to develop." there is a fortune being made building office space in the area. Two years ago Dene Oliver and his partner Jim McMillan, both thirty years old at the time, acquired a three acre parcel on Executive Drive, a block north of University Towne Center, for one million dollars per acre. This was a low price, Oliver explained, because of a zoning restriction that limited development to 75,000 square feet, about half the maximum for that acreage. They put up a $12 million office building that is already half-leased.

Then they acquired the three acres next door, fronting Genesee Avenue. It had once been owned by the Presbyterian Synod of Southern California and was to have been part of an ecumenical square in which four churches blended their land uses, according to an idea investigated by Hamstra's group. It has no special zoning limitation and therefore commanded one of the highest prices ever paid in University City: $2.2 million per acre. The land is being built to its maximum density of 160,000 square feet, half of which will become the new headquarters of La Jolla Bank and Trust.

That makes 1.57 million square feet of office space near the intersection of Genesee Avenue and La Jolla Village Drive, which compares to the 1.25 million square feet in downtown San Diego that last December stood vacant. This much vacancy was due to the construction cycle in which several new office buildings, like melons, swelled in their season and came to the downtown market at once. No one can say exactly what effect the office space in University City will have on downtown's planned resurgence; government and finance will say centered downtown, said Angeles Leira of the city's planning staff. She added that only tear years ago San Diego would have been unable to support many "nodes" outside of downtown. Ideally, the office space in University City will be taken up by businesses related to the university's scientific research, but in the meantime developers make no bones about buildings for banks and attorneys.

"The quaint college town didn't happen," said Bruce Warren, former planning director for San Diego County and now with Genstar Corporation, a Canadian firm that acquired Kahn's holdings in University City. "But the only major difference between the [1971] plan for this area and what's happening now is the increase in office space...and that's due to the tremendous freeway access, the location, and maybe to some extent the over saturation in La Jolla."

From behind his clean desk, he added that heavy traffic is inevitable in an "urban core" but that the trade-off is a richer cultural life. "San Diego as a whole is a much more exciting place to live now that it was eight years ago," he said. "There's more to do, more quality entertainment, more going on." He likened University City to the developments around the John Wayne Airport in Orange County and said that a number of high-quality "super blocks" made for pleasant walking, shopping, dining. The collection of bank buildings on the north side of the John Wayne Airport, east of Interstate 405, rises like silos from a grain field, looking totally out of place in suburbia. Yet included are unsuburban niceties; a patisserie open till mid night, and the South Cost Repertory Theater.

"What I have to ask," said Rebar, riding in a car with her children dozing in back, "is whether all this development in my community is meeting a need or creating a need. Who needs all this office space....all these hotels? The community? Phooey!"

In 1981, convinced that the developers were ignoring the spirit of the community plan, the residents of University City took over the planning group in its first general election, ousting, among others, R.H. Hamstra. "I suppose you could say we're too late," said Melissa Griffen, who took Hamstra's seat. "But there's still time to chip away at some of the building densities. After all, it’s our community. We live here. We know how we like it."

Hamstra believes that time will vindicate the plan for a dense, lively "town center core," or "urban node, " or whatever one may call it. The fourth corner at Genesee and La Jolla Village drive, the vacant lot that faces the shopping center and the earthmovers bellying into the new office park, may yet have a supermarket, Hamstra said, though he is not at liberty to say for sure. The land is owned by Home Federal Savings and Loan, whose development branch has not yet unrolled any drawing, "As time goes on, the community services will all be there," Hamstra said.

There is a counterpart to this intersection in south University City — the corner of Genesee Avenue and Governor Drive. It has a filling station on every corner, and a Safeway, a Thrifty, a church, and a vacant lot with the sign posted "Thou Shalt Not Dump."

One afternoon the #41 bus pulled up and unboarded two giggling teenagers and an old man. The teen-agers ran hand-in-hand across the street toward their transfer, shouting, "I don't know where we're going! So what!" And the pale looking man with a bandage on his head looked at the gas stations all around him and said, "Damn! These places all look alike."

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