Thirty years in, the 16th Street Mall is still going strong
Thirty years ago this week, amid launches of balloons and speeches and other emissions of hot air, Denver's 16th Street Mall was officially declared open for business. It was the beginning of a new era for downtown merchants and office workers, the first big move by a voracious transit empire known as the Regional Transportation District — and the death of something, too.
For a kid growing up in Denver in the 1960s, the bumper-to-bumper traffic along the old 16th Street was the apex of urban sophistication and cool. Downtown was where you took cousins from the suburbs and hick towns to impress them, showing off sky-scraping bank buildings and clock towers and venerable sandstone hotels as if you owned them. And 16th Street was the ribbon of light and noise and energy that held it all together. It was our Broadway, our Sunset Boulevard, our Champs-Élysées.
The street had everything. Elegant, hulking movie palaces fit for a rajah beckoned with huge marquees and lobby displays; the Denver and the Paramount squared off across the street from each other with the latest blockbusters, while the Centre pushed Disney fare a few blocks away. (Nothing better than plunking down 35 cents for a Wednesday matinee at the Paramount and being the first kid on your block to see Goldfinger.) Parents dragged you to chic shops and sprawling department stores — including Neusteter's, Joslins, May D&F, the Denver Dry and its precious Tea Room — but if you were lucky, the trip also included Dave Cook Sporting Goods or Zeckendorf Plaza and its ice rink, or maybe a fancy dinner at the Top of the Rockies.
16th Street Mall
- Slide show: Shopping on the 16th Street Mall
- From the Archives: Denver's 16th Street a century ago
- A love letter to Boulder's Pearl Street Mall
- Ten best patios on the 16th Street Mall
- A guide to vendors on the 16th Street Mall
- Slide show: Vendors on the 16th Street Mall
- Smoking at Paramount Cafe and 86'd from Coyote Ugly: happy birthday, 16th Street Mall
At the center of it all, between Stout and Champa, was the operation that epitomized all that was useful and beautiful about downtown, the only place where you could grab a slice of pizza, buy a Moody Blues record, a live goldfish or cheap underwear — and pick up an education in human behavior at its best and worst, just watching the throngs of people coming and going at the Woolworth's lunch counter.
At night, the street was a river of neon and menace. Cruisers showed off their muscle cars, heading northwest on 16th, then looping back on 15th, past decrepit bars and dim parking lots and shady hotels, endlessly circling the heart of downtown as if smitten. They were the offspring of Dean Moriarty, in love with night and the city.
By the time I got my own driver's license, though, city leaders were puzzling over what to do about a downtown in steep decline. The movie houses, the stores, even the night spots were losing business to the suburbs. Phil Milstein, director of Downtown Denver Inc., floated the idea of a pedestrian mall, only to be met with staunch opposition from retailers. Then RTD got involved.
A glorified bus company fueled by a regional sales tax and big ideas, RTD had a tough time selling auto-loving Denverites on mass transit. Some of its earliest proposals, including futuristic "people movers" and a subway that would have run from Eighth Avenue and Lincoln through downtown to Blake Street, had been hooted into oblivion. But the agency's poobahs correctly perceived that a pedestrian mall with shuttle service could be the first link in a metro-wide system of transit projects — especially if you added bus terminals at each end of the mall and brand-new administrative offices for RTD in a renovated building on Blake.
With RTD wooing an influx of federal dollars, property owners and retailers were gradually won over to the idea that the mall would ease congestion, improve business and spur redevelopment of some of the street's more dilapidated blocks. Mayor Bill McNichols Jr. fought like hell to keep auto traffic on the western end of the project, but found his veto overridden by a mall-enraptured city council. I.M. Pei, creator of so many other iconic Denver structures — including, of course, Zeckendorf Plaza — signed on as architect.
Construction began in 1980. The unveiling came two years later, a full year behind schedule and at a cost of roughly $75 million, nearly a third over its original budget. Within a few months, several giant holes were discovered under the mall. Workers hustled to fill in the cavities and replace pavement stones that kept coming loose while retail interests scrambled to fill in the cold, sterile spaces between the bus lanes with benches and flowers.
At the time, one member of the Downtown Denver Partnership declared that the mall wouldn't be completed until the downtown retail scene had been upgraded. If that's true, then the mall is still a work in progress. Two major stores, J.C. Penney and Joseph Magnin, fled downtown while the mall was still under construction. Over the next decade or so, numerous other downtown institutions joined the exodus: Fashion Bar and Joslins, Cottrell's and Montaldo's, Neusteter's and Fontius. May D&F's parent company bought out its old rival, the Denver, then gave up the ghost of Zeckendorf Plaza in 1995 to a boring hotel expansion. In their place are the Tabor Center and the Denver Pavilions, lofts and chi-chi bars and Starbucks.
The 16th Street Mall failed to be the disaster its critics feared it would be. It couldn't "save" downtown retail from prevailing cultural and economic forces, either; but from a transit perspective, the mall has been a smashing success on several levels.
"If that investment had not been made, the core of downtown would have fallen apart," says RTD spokesman Scott Reed. "Before the mall, it was taking us a ridiculous amount of time to get through downtown with our bus routes. Now it's a key component of the whole downtown experience, and the spine of our entire system serving downtown."
With 50,000 passenger trips a day, the mall's free shuttle service has become not only a convenience for commuters and office workers, but a must-do for tourists. According to Reed, the mall is now the top-ranked attraction for Denver visitors.
There's no going back, and that's as it should be. But there are times — when the sun goes down and the buses lurch along the mall and the lights burn bright and sinister in this granite arroyo of tourists and bar crawlers — times when I think of Dean Moriarty, and, damn, I miss Woolworth's. — Alan Prendergast
In June 2001, John Qualley walked into the Appaloosa Grill at the corner of Welton and the 16th Street Mall. A bass player and founding member of Oakhurst, he'd been working at the Wynkoop Brewing Company and decided to move to the company's newest restaurant, which had opened just two months earlier. "I was really just trying to see what the place was about, get to know the neighborhood," says Qualley, who's now 42. "I wasn't a big fan of the 16th Street Mall in 2001. It just wasn't nearly as cohesive as it is now.... This neighborhood down here was kind of all waiting."
But Qualley wasn't. He quickly worked his way up in the ranks, from bar manager to general manager. And in July 2005 he and his bandmate, Adam Hill, bought the place, which they've been running ever since. Today Appaloosa is best known as a venue for live music, which can be heard here every single night of the year except Christmas Eve.
Appaloosa was one of the last businesses that John Hickenlooper, today the governor of Colorado, opened while he was still running the Wynkoop Brewing Company. And both Hickenlooper and Qualley saw that this area — and, by extension, the entire city of Denver — was heading into a period of major growth and development. "I was able to see very clearly why Wynkoop and John would have selected this location," says Qualley. "I was able to see a future here that a lot of people around us weren't aware of or didn't pay attention to."
That future included a revamped Colorado Convention Center, whose debut in 2004 set the stage for a surge in downtown tourists — and Qualley knew many of them would be looking for nighttime entertainment. "With the expansion of the convention center, that's when Denver really turned the corner on tourism," he says. "As ski resorts were learning how to sell Colorado in the summertime, Denver was learning how to sell itself to people [with more than] oil and gas...and really aim high."
The Downtown Denver Partnership's "State of Downtown" report released last week shows how that growth has continued in recent years. The 16th Street Mall's percentage of downtown's total sales-tax revenue rose steadily from 2009 to 2011, according to the report; establishments on the mall collected nearly $10.8 million in sales-tax revenue in 2011, accounting for nearly 32 percent of downtown's total tax revenue. Over thirty retailers and restaurants have opened downtown since July 2011, many of them on the mall.
And attracting nightlife is increasingly important to many of those businesses. Across the street from Appaloosa, the Hard Rock Cafe in the Denver Pavilions has started focusing on providing more live events, says Sean Finney, the restaurant's general manager; in June, the venue added live comedy, too. "We've seen some good growth since 2008 — up about 6 percent," he notes. "And the late night has become a bigger part of that."
Matt Keeling, a general manager at Coyote Ugly in the Pavilions, says that tourism has been a central part of the business since it opened in March 2005. "We're always down to throw a party here," he explains. "If you show up and you want to have fun, you'll get it."
While live music attracts tourists looking for late-night activities, it also continues to grow his base of local customers, Qualley says. And keeping the kitchen open until 1:30 a.m. doesn't hurt, either. Since he became general manager, the business has grown 300 percent in sales and also expanded physically, with a $700,000 redevelopment project in 2007. When they started storing alcohol under the booths, he explains, it was clear Appaloosa needed more space.
"We fill a very unique niche that's really geared toward the musician. We're not trying to get crazy ticket sales; we're not putting five bands a night on," he says. Instead, Appaloosa has a solid roster of more than sixty bands that rotate through. "We just have a core value that local musicians that are really good have a shot at playing here."
As downtown continues to grow as a destination for tourists and residents alike, so will nightlife on the mall, says Qualley, who lives at California and 16th streets. "We're going to be at the epicenter," he says. "We believed in the city of Denver enough to mortgage ourselves fully...and we're still here, and that bet is still paying off." — Sam Levin
Today Denver is always on the lookout for national companies that want to move here. But in the late '70s, downtown became home to an international headquarters when Divine Light Mission leader Guru Maharaj Ji — who'd moved to this country in 1971 at the age of fourteen, then caused a stir when he married his secretary two years later — decided to set up an office here after visiting the city in 1976. "You see, these changes will slowly, slowly start occurring," he said at that meeting. "I don't know to what extent they are going to occur. I can't tell you. I can't predict that. As you know, people really don't have the right consciousness about Divine Light Mission. They think it's a cult or a religion. But what do we really teach you? Still, those things confuse people, because there are some similarities to be found. Anything that's becoming a burden in the path of knowledge, I'm just going to eliminate that."
And he got right down to business, setting up an office in the Kittredge Building, at 16th and Welton streets, where his followers — known as premies — ran a typesetting business that helped produce the early issues of Westword. They might not have been cult members, but they certainly worked cheaply and without complaint, always dressed in the colors of the Indian sunrise.
By the time the 16th Street Mall opened in 1982, the Guru and his followers had moved on. The immaculately renovated Kittredge Building is now the headquarters for Downtown Denver, the booster group that not only envisioned the mall, but oversees the Business Improvement District that spends $2.4 million annually on cleaning, snow removal, holiday decor and other mall services. The path to knowledge may have changed direction, but it's always moving. The original mall was just thirteen blocks long; in 1994 it was extended to the railroad tracks beyond Wynkoop Street, and later it was on the move again, four blocks farther into the Central Platte Valley.
"In my time here in Denver — the last seven years — there have been some very significant developments," says Tami Door, president and CEO of the Downtown Denver Partnership, who just presided over the inaugural State of Downtown Denver confab last week. "We have a really strong vision for the mall, and we are steadily working our way through that — as a community, not just as the partnership." And when the mall isn't growing in length, it's growing in depth.
This year, for example, the mall introduced an "enhanced vending program" that not only helped activate the space, but also encouraged new entrepreneurs to enter the market. At the same time, major retailers have joined the lineup, including H&M, "an absolute game-changer," Door says. Today there are over 200 retail establishments on the mall (or within a half-block), ranging from H&M and sunglass vendors to the Cheesecake Factory and hot dog vendors; they collected nearly $10.8 million in sales taxes last year, nearly 32 percent of Denver's total sales-tax revenue. And there's more to come. The addition of 1600 Glenarm and the transformation of Block 162 into the Sage Building energized one half of the mall; the developments will soon stretch to 1600 Market and beyond to Union Station.
"We will always and forever have new and improved ways to manage and improve the mall," Door says, "but it's important to step back and look over how much we've done as a community over the last thirty years, and even the last ten years." And you'll have a chance to do just that on October 9, when the Denver Partnership and RTD host a lunchtime celebration at Skyline Park marking the thirtieth anniversary of the mall.
"When we did the twenty-year plan," Door says, referring to the Partnership's work with the city back in 2006, "we emphasized the importance of a mosaic of districts. The 16th Street Mall flows through so many of those districts, each with their own character.... That's what we love about the mall, that's why it's such a true, fabulous urban space, recognized nationally as the best in the country. If you just stand out there and take it all in, it's really marvelous."
For downtown residents, downtown workers, suburban visitors and tourists alike, it's the path to knowledge...of Denver. — Patricia Calhoun
It's not quite cold yet, but it will be. And when that happens, Lucy, who asked that her last name not be used here, will spend her first winter in "many many" away from the 16th Street Mall. She might even leave Denver altogether, but she hasn't decided yet. Lingering near the parking lot of the Denver Pavilions, Lucy digs through her backpack for a cigarette. She pulls out a Pall Mall, lights it and exhales.
"I can't see my breath yet," she says. "See?"
For the last couple of months, Lucy has slept under an I-25 overpass, though she is careful not to specify which one. She used to sleep in what she still refers to as her "normal home": the protected nooks of the 16th Street Mall. Now, when her eyes grow heavier, she knows it's time to move on — and away from the mall. That's a hard-and-fast rule for her now, she says; before it was "more like a suggestion."
By "before," she means before Denver's urban-camping ban took effect on May 29 and police officers began to enforce the ordinance, which effectively upgraded the city's sit-lie ordinance, making it illegal to camp on any public or private property in Denver without permission. Since then, Lucy has not attracted any police attention, which she attributes to two things: She doesn't want any, and, she says, "I don't look homeless. I keep it that way."
But she does sleep on the streets. According to the city's enforcement protocol for the new ordinance, the signs that someone is camping include sleep, shelter and food, and the decision to pass the ban — a decision that split Denver City Council — came with considerable controversy. Opponents framed the issue as a means of criminalizing extreme poverty, while supporters insisted that it would improve both local businesses and the lives of those who slept in front of them.
In the ban's early days, Mayor Michael Hancock, a staunch member of the second camp, praised its benefits, telling Westword that some of the people who formerly slept on Denver's streets and sidewalks have returned to their homes and families as a result. "For some people like me, that might be true," Lucy guesses. But for her, it's not: Instead of becoming a prodigal daughter, she has opted instead to move farther from the public eye, at least when she does anything that could be considered "camping or anything like that," she says. "I mean, I'm certainly not shopping." — Kelsey Whipple
Inside a tiny, dimly lit room hidden in the back of the Paramount Theatre, at the corner of 16th and Glenarm, piles of dusty artifacts — ancient ticket machines, giant projectors, decades-old turntables, faded newspaper clippings — attest to the building's long tenure in the heart of downtown. "Some day, I think it'd be neat to make a museum out of this stuff," says Ian Marzonie, the Paramount's production and facility manager, standing inside what the staff calls the "Antique Room."
In a room next door, the place certainly has enough history to fill a museum.
"When you go from having [dozens of] theaters in downtown to one remaining, it's a testament to the people that looked around at that time and said, 'Hey, this is worth preserving; this is worth keeping,'" says John Scheck, who works in the booking department of Kroenke Sports and Entertainment, which bought the structure in 2002.
The breathtaking, nearly 2,000-seat space was designed by architect Temple Buell, and today it retains many of the art-deco design elements that made it such a landmark when it debuted in 1930. The facade consists of pre-cast concrete blocks and glazed terra cotta moldings; the interior features large Vincent Mondo murals surrounded by ornate gold and bronze frames.
The very first film shown here was Let's Go Native, back on August 29, 1930. Marzonie has a giant scrapbook in his office that includes a newspaper ad touting the showing: "Tomorrow at 7 p.m.... A NEW ERA will dawn in the entertainment history of Denver.... Nowhere in the world is there a theatre where the miracles of science created such wonders in entertainment...voice, with lifelike realism from the living screen...symphonic colors with the mood of pictures...beauty, luxury, comfort in this most modernistic theatre."
Fast-forward half a century to a time when the Paramount — and downtown Denver itself — was at a major crossroads. The owners were looking to sell the theater, which was still showing movies, and only movies; Historic Denver, the non-profit preservationist group that had been formed a decade earlier to save the Molly Brown House, ended up buying it in 1981. Although the Paramount was already on the National Register of Historic Places, that didn't protect it from possible demolition. The Historic Denver purchase did, however, and it continued to operate the space, booking live performances as well as films.
"The intention was to preserve it as a physical landmark, but also to preserve it as a theater," says Annie Levinsky, the current executive director of Historic Denver. "It was one of the only remaining theaters in downtown."
At the same time, the development of the 16th Street Mall was under way, and the Paramount was to play a pivotal role. "The mall would take advantage of the historic buildings in the sense of creating human-scale intimate space," says Levinsky. As a result, today the Paramount "is one of the great icons of downtown Denver and one of the few that does operate in exactly the way it was intended."
Even the Wurlitzer twin-console organ, designed to accompany silent movies and one of only two of its kind remaining in the country, operates exactly the way it was originally intended. More than 1,600 pipes generate all kinds of orchestral and percussive sounds, along with a diverse array of special effects.
But the Paramount is now known for a different kind of music. The theater has been an important stop for musicians in the early stages of their careers — and they often enjoy coming back toward the end of their careers, says Scheck, who worked at the place even before Kroenke took over.
"In this day and age, laying your hands on a piece of history...is rare. You would never be able to build something like this today," he points out. "This is what it was like if my great-grandparents came to a show and were here in 1930 when it opened. It's a true gem." — Sam Levin
Denver's second-oldest continuously operating brewery is part of a national chain of similar operations. It features a "concept" that these days is found more often in suburban shopping centers than in urban cores, and it was recently bought out by another chain — one with its corporate headquarters in Tennessee.
But it wasn't always that way.
The Rock Bottom Restaurant & Brewery opened on the ground floor of the Prudential Building, at 16th and Curtis streets, on November 1, 1991, three years after the Wynkoop Brewing Company started serving beer in LoDo and two years before the Colorado Rockies came to town. Its founders, entrepreneurs Frank and Gina Day, were already involved in the Boulder Beer Company and wanted something similar in Denver.
They jokingly named it after its spot in the building that housed the Prudential insurance company, which used a Rock of Gibraltar logo and the slogan "Own a Piece of the Rock."
"We've been through a lot of renovations and some corporate mergers, but the main idea has stayed the same," says Daniel Langhoff, who was working the host shift on a recent afternoon. The idea: to make good food and to brew good beer.
A local actor, performer and musician, Langhoff started coming to Rock Bottom when he was in high school to check out the bands that would play on a loft-like landing above the brewhouse that's on display in the center of the restaurant. "They would climb ladders to get up there and we would sit over there," he says, pointing toward what is now Rock Bottom's main entrance.
Over the years he returned again and again, celebrating his thirtieth birthday at Rock Bottom and finally taking a job as a host here in 2008. "I've always liked the 16th Street Mall," he says. "Everything downtown centers around the mall but doesn't crowd it."
Lunchtime during the week, as well as Friday and Saturday nights, are when the Rock Bottom sees its biggest regular rushes, but it normally takes a convention or a major sporting event to fill all 438 seats and 100-plus patio spots. Rock Bottom's own events, like its summer music series and its once-a-month Thursday beer releases, also help attract customers. Oh, and at those beer releases, anyone who shows up between 6 and 6:30 p.m. gets a free pint.
You can watch that beer being made at Rock Bottom. That's because the kettles themselves are located in the middle of the space, with big windows to look through. A system of steel pipes connects the kettles to fermentation and storage tanks, which are located in three highly visible places.
"It was designed for show, not for functionality," says John McClure, who has been brewing at this Rock Bottom for fifteen years this week, all the while using the same equipment. Not that that has impeded his skills. McClure has won numerous awards and medals for his beers, including a gold at the prestigious World Beer Cup last May for his Baltic Gnome Porter — which, by the way, is currently on tap here.
He brews around 2,400 barrels of beer each year and has helped design some of the recipes for beers that are now featured at Rock Bottom's other thirty-plus locations.
When the Wynkoop Brewing Company — Denver's oldest brewpub — was founded in LoDo in 1988, it was credited as the brewpub that built a neighborhood.
But Denver's second-oldest brewpub — founded when the 16th Street Mall was only nine years old — has been doing the same thing on the other end of downtown. — Jonathan Shikes
From Chestnut Place, a street that runs from the very end of the 16th Street Mall up to 20th Street and is lined with chain-link fences and construction equipment, it's possible to imagine what the redeveloped Denver Union Station will look like when it's done. It's a multi-layered daydream: To the west is the new light-rail station, neat and gleaming but nearly deserted at noon on a weekday except for the snaking line of free 16th Street Mall shuttles queuing up to turn around for another circuitous trip.
To the east is where the most exciting stuff is happening, though much of it is underground. Skylights poke up between the public gardens and beside the walkways on top of the two-block-long, 22-bay subterranean bus depot being built underneath 17th Street. Those walkways lead straight from Chestnut Place to the eventual location of eight street-level commuter rail tracks that will sit behind Union Station and someday take passengers to Boulder, Thornton, Wheat Ridge and Denver International Airport.
Progress is also being made on the so-called "wing buildings" that will flank the historic Union Station building. Controversial when they were first proposed, these five-story structures will be home to offices on the top levels and restaurants and retail on the ground floors. In front of each will be a plaza: trees, flowers and benches on the north side of the station, ground fountains and space to host a festival or farmers' market on the south side, leading right into the extended mall.
"Someday, there will be forty-story buildings all around," says Roger Sherman, chief operating officer for lobbying firm CRL Associates and an RTD pro who helped get voter approval for the massive FasTracks project and now serves as spokesman for the Denver Union Station Project Authority. He's referring to the private developments expected to spring up around Union Station like points in a crown. "Other cities would kill to build their transit hub in the middle of the most densely populated part of the city."
But getting to this point wasn't easy. Union Station opened in 1881 as a way to consolidate the city's train depots under one roof — though it was always more than that. The biggest building in Denver when it was built, Union Station became an icon, carrying soldiers off to World War II and welcoming presidents and queens to the Mile High City.
As auto and airline travel grew, however, the bustle of Union Station died down to a murmur. In 2001, a consortium of public entities, including RTD, the Denver Regional Council of Governments and the City of Denver, bought the station and the 19.5 acres it sits on for close to $50 million. Their vision? To turn Union Station into a busy transit hub served by buses, light-rail trains and commuter lines. The project got a necessary boost in 2004 when voters approved FasTracks, a multibillion-dollar plan to build 122 miles of new rail lines and eighteen miles of bus rapid transit along the Front Range that also allocated $208.8 million to revitalizing Union Station as a multi-modal hub. That was far short of the station renovation's $488 million price tag, but a good start, nonetheless.
The next several years saw a succession of design and development decisions, crises and resolutions of funding, disagreements and compromises. Construction finally began in February 2010. One of the first pieces of the project to be completed was the relocation of the light-rail station to northwest of Union Station and the extension of the 16th Street Mall shuttle route, so that buses now turn around at the new station.
Escalators that are today ringed by signs that read "Construction Area Keep Out" will eventually carry passengers into the underground bus depot. The depot itself will be 980 feet long and is 75 percent complete, Sherman says. The commuter rail station is 55 percent complete; when it's finished, it will be covered by a canopy made out of material similar to that of the roof at DIA. The canopy will shade certain parts of the platform but be open in the middle so as not to obscure the view of historic Union Station from higher ground.
Construction on the plazas out front, as well as the streets included in the project, is 97 percent complete, according to Sherman. Passersby won't notice much of the plaza work, however, as the finishing touches aren't done. As for the wing buildings, the one to the north, which is farther along, will serve as the headquarters of IMA Financial Group, while the south wing will be home to Antero Resources, an independent oil-and-gas exploration company.
Renovations to the historic station itself are only 11 percent complete, Sherman says. Union Station Alliance, the team in charge of the renovation that includes Sage Hospitality president and CEO Walter Isenberg, recently received word from the National Park Service that its plan to remodel Denver Union Station to include a boutique hotel meets the park service's standards, which is essential if the project wants to receive historic-preservation tax credits.
At a recent ceremony, RTD general manager Phil Washington waxes nostalgic about how far the redevelopment project has come. "On February 5, 2010, we stood where the old light-rail station used to be and there was nothing here," he says. "And look at this now."
Washington is speaking from underneath a white tent erected in an empty lot near 17th and Wewatta streets, addressing a suit-and-tie crowd gathered to celebrate the groundbreaking of the first high-rise project at Union Station. Called Cadence after the rhythm of the railyard, the building will include 219 apartments, a space to do yoga and a rooftop pool. At an average of $1,600 per month, the studios and one- and two-bedrooms won't be cheap, but the developer promises they'll be energy-efficient.
"This is really the stuff that greatness is made of," says Mayor Michael Hancock, stopping by to praise Cadence's creators. He calls it "a place-based project," one being erected "where the action is really happening, at the hub of the wheel," a development he hopes will attract hardworking, innovative (and money-spending) twenty- and thirty-somethings eager to ditch their cars and fall in love with public transit.
With the rebirth of Union Station, he says, "Denver, and our region, has really hit pay dirt." — Melanie Asmar
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