Unven Growth: The Other New York

The Other New York, 2014. Design by SITU Studio, Video produced and directed by Brooklyn Digital Foundry.


SITU’s work for the Uneven Growth exhibition – which opens to the public this Saturday November 22nd at The Museum of Modern Art – focuses on the informal component of New York City’s housing market and seeks to place it squarely within conversations about affordability. The condition of unevenness in New York is distinct from some of the other cities featured in the show in that it is often concealed from view – at least with respect to housing.

Our contribution to Uneven Growth addresses the hidden density of New York’s informal housing not by trying to shift residents elsewhere, but rather, by proposing a way for communities to thrive within the neighborhoods they already inhabit. By focusing on tactical interventions, additions and renovations of existing housing stock, we envision a landscape of accretive architectural proliferation that populates rooftops, backyards, industrial buildings and other available spaces.

Taking this vision even further, we also propose a new mixed-use, mixed income infill building typology that provides a direct link from the public street up to the new roof-scape and behind to courtyard spaces. Facilitated through a novel financing model that aims to energize nearby urban hubs while also supporting local transportation and other infrastructural investments, a new form of incremental growth is catalyzed to produce a more equitable New York.

Uneven Growth: Community Growth Corporation (CGC)

The Community Growth Corporation, Jesse M. Keenan, MAS Summit 2014

As part of its research for the Uneven Growth project, SITU worked with Jesse Keenan of the Center for Urban Real Estate (CURE.) to propose an ownership and development model focused on capturing the value of unused air rights in the service of funding affordable housing.  In addition to working closely with Jesse, the Furman Center’s guidance and work on Transferable Development Rights was an essential component of this research.  This post focuses on SITU’s strategy for unlocking development rights as one approach to addressing the affordability crisis in New York on a localized level.  The CGC proposes a scenario where underutilized urban spaces could be opened up to a new type of incremental growth facilitated through neighborhood based organizations called Community Growth Corporations. In the below video, Jesse Keenan explains the principles and mechanics of the CGC at this year’s annual Municipal Art Society Summit.


CGC1. Redistribution of FAR in the outer boroughs.

The Community Growth Corporation (CGC) is a hypothetical development model meant to align social and financial capital in a way that allows for the preservation of affordable housing and the creation of community-driven neighborhood projects. The mechanism for capitalization is a public auction of excess floor area ratio (FAR) within a community that would otherwise go unused, or where the cost to build to the FAR outweighs the benefit of added interior space. Excess FAR is then exchanged for a share of the CGC. Altering the existing regulations so that FAR is no longer restricted to contiguous properties, but instead can be aggregated – forming new kinds of development– both low-rise affordable housing or higher rise mixed-income developments in adjacent neighborhoods that are suited for denser development (Image 2).


20141114_CGC44. Intra-borough Receiving and Donating Zones.

“Receiving Zones” are identified as areas that are capable of accepting increased density due to the availability of space as well as existing access to transportation infrastructure. “Donating Zones” are identified as areas that are currently over-populated and are severely rent-burdened, meaning that on average households spend more than 50% of their income on housing. The transfer of FAR between the two zones can only occur if they are adjacent.


20141114_CGC33. FAR Bank and redistribution of FAR

By exchanging excess FAR for shares in the CGC, landowners of properties with affordable housing receive modest investments returns that must be used to renovate or further develop the property. These returns are attached to the property itself rather than its owner in order to ensure that investment in affordable housing is continual, especially in neighborhoods that are already over populated and rent-burdened. All residents are able to gain shares in the CGC, regardless of whether or not they are landowners, through “sweat equity” – participating in street and public space improvements, engaging in senior care activities, coordinating transit pools, etc. Returns for these CGC shareholders come in the form of unit renovations or as rent credits, ensuring the advancement and quality of affordable housing.


20141114_CGC64. Participation in the CGC.

A CGC web interface would allow shareholders and community members to manage how their returns are both distributed, personally and within the larger community. A portion of yearly returns would be allocated to community developments ranging from schools to bike lanes and the interface would allow community members to participate in the decision-making process.

The CGC is predicated upon the commodification and a redistribution of the public asset of the right to build to ensure another right – a right to housing.

Uneven Growth: The American Community Survey (ACS)

All121. 2012 American Community Survey Information. Median age, median income, median rent, percent Black or African American, percent Asian, percent foreign born, percent Hispanic or Latino, percent senior citizens, percent vacant residential units, percent White, percent under 18, median commute via public transit.

This entry marks the second in a series of blog posts on research conducted for The Other New York, SITU’s contribution to the MoMA exhibition Uneven Growth. In the prior post we focused on a largely hidden and unaccounted for component of the housing crisis in New York City. Here, we look into the metrics that can shed some light on the household composition of illegally converted dwellings – spaces that are by definition hard to document. Working in collaboration with Citizens Housing and Planning Council and using their Making Room Household Model, SITU visualized data from the American Community Survey with respect to housing demographics. This study was instrumental in identifying neighborhoods that would become the focus of our design strategy and proposal for the Uneven Growth exhibition.

Politicians and researchers have argued that in the most recent decennial census, conducted in 2010, New York City’s population was undercounted by upwards of 50,000 and perhaps as high as 400,000 people.  Much of the discrepancy is believed to have occurred in communities within the boroughs of Queens and Brooklyn – vibrant neighborhoods such as Astoria and Jackson Heights, Bay Ridge and Bensonhurst – that experienced high population growth between the 1990 and 2000 census. An undercount of this magnitude results in a wide gap between community needs and city funding for key initiatives such as affordable housing and transportation – calling into question the accuracy and practicality of the decennial census.

The American Community Survey – an annual supplement to the decennial census – captures vital information cities such as New York need in order to determine long-term planning and financial decisions.  Think of it as a yearly physical for the government – a check-up for how well it is serving the American population.  Information obtained through ACS correlates with the long-form survey on the decennial census; yet because it is administered yearly, changes in housing characteristics and demographics are more easily traced than by simply referencing the decennial census.

Wall3Edit2. American Community Survey housing demographic information. Source: NYC Citizens Housing and Planning Council, “2012 American Community Survey, using CHPC’s Making Room Housing Model” (2012)

For Uneven Growth, SITU worked with the CHPC to visualize data from the American Community Survey with respect to housing demographics. The above diagram shows the 13 neighborhoods in New York City with the highest rates of shared spaces per 2012 ACS data. When superimposed on the map to show locations of reported illegal conversions (in blue) a correlation can be seen between concentrations of informal housing and shared living conditions. Citywide, only 17.65% of housing units are occupied by what the Census Bureau considers “nuclear families.”  However the City’s housing stock consists largely of 2-3 bedroom apartments with a “master bedroom.” This disconnect between demographics and existing typologies provided an important starting point for our exhibition research. Overall, the percentage of singles living alone is 31.4% and the percentage of housing units that are shared either with or without family members is 25.4%. Given these trends, SITU focused on strategies dedicated to realigning living space and demographics realities by focusing on the needs of individuals living alone as well shared housing arrangements.  In this sense, The Other New York focuses on a model of incremental growth and flexibility in the type of housing stock as a direct response to the shifting demographic trends within neighborhoods expressed in the American Community Survey.

Uneven Growth: Invisible New York

As part of the research conducted for the upcoming exhibition Uneven Growth that opens later this month at The Museum of Modern Art, SITU looked into the role that illegal conversions play in the ecology of the New York City housing market. Below are some findings – first written by SITU for MoMA’s Post blog and reproduced here.


A curtain divider creates a bedroom out of a living room in this apartment in Flushing, Queens. This one bedroom apartment is shared by a mother, her son and an elderly unrelated couple. Jeyhoun Allebaugh, 2014.


Governed by a unique “Right to Shelter” mandate, New York is distinct from other municipalities across the U.S. in its legal provisions for temporary housing assistance. While this constitutional right may provide some relief for homeless New Yorkers, the extra-legal reality is that the cost of shelter has forced far greater segments of the City’s population into informal housing markets – a condition that is at once pervasive andhidden.

Even though housing in New York is rarely compared to conditions found in cities like Mumbai or Rio, one simply needs to scratch the surface in order to find the varied informal financial, social, and spatial networks that live in the shadows of New York City’s legal frameworks. Evidenced by cash-based economies, strained infrastructure, or illegally converted dwellings, much of the populations operating in these zones are poor and often concealed from view. Unlike many other parts of the world – where density is on view and a central part of policy, planning, and design discourse – a distinguishing characteristic of the informal housing market in New York is the interiority of its condition.

Because this segment of New York’s population is packed into housing stock that is completely at odds with contemporary demographic realities, the informal markets have carved up and occupied the interiors of the city in order to create viable housing options. Concealed within the City’s seemingly endless rows of apartment buildings, townhouses, and high-rises is a network of typologies that have adapted, subdivided, or converted existing spaces to accommodate the growing number of those who cannot find a place within the formal housing market. Existing somewhere between the designation of “homelessness” and the “lowest income” of the affordability ladder, this population works in the lowest paid jobs. Most frequently they are employed in the service sectors providing the support necessary to keep this so-called ‘luxury city’ upright and thriving.

While it is precisely these informal networks that most readily propagate the evidence of uneven growth in New York, it is, by definition, a condition that resists measurement. The Census conducted by the City of New York in 2010 yielded highly contentious results – by some measures undercounting by 200,000 people. These omissions were particularly acute in parts of the outer boroughs with the highest concentrations of illegally converted apartments. Whether the evidence is anecdotal or gathered by virtue of proxy indicators (i.e. utility consumption per square foot or Building Department violations), it is certain that the informal housing market is pervasive in certain neighborhoods in Queens, Brooklyn and the Bronx. This reality points to the fact that the quality of life that so many New Yorkers have become accustomed to relies upon the services provided by a sizable population whose presence is rarely acknowledged or discussed. The network of Three Quarter houses, cellar units, illegal subdivisions, and flophouses that constitute this foundation conceal a significant number of citizens. In their invisible state, they are left out of the discussions, policies, and design decisions that shape the city in which they live.


I. Riis

Jacob August Riis, Family in room in tenement house, ca. 1910. Gelatin silver print. From the Collections of the Museum of the City of New York.


A quiet and persistent reality, New York has long been reluctant to betray its interior. In the late 19th century, a Danish immigrant and activist named Jacob Riis leveraged the then nascent technology of the tungsten flash to document the conditions of the City’s most vulnerable populations – those living in tenements on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Compiled in his seminal work, How the Other Half Lives, Riis’ photographs revealed the realities of some of New York City’s more abhorrent housing conditions. This act of documenting and exposing the City’s informal ‘underside’ to the wider public, allowed Riis to demonstrate that amidst the prospering urban population was an integral but invisible city with unmet and unacknowledged needs. The most remarkable legacy of this work is the social reform movement it catalyzed, which ultimately led to the first significant US legislation addressing tenement house reform. Despite having been undertaken over a century ago, Riis’ project remains more relevant than ever as the same conditions of hidden density persist across the City today. At an inflection point between two NYC administrations with very different agendas, Riis’ work remains contemporary – a precedent for rendering visible a reality pervasive, yet hidden.


II. Illegal Conversions

311 New York City service complaints (from 2010 to Present) reporting illegal conversions of residential building/spaces. Source: New York City Department of Buildings


Because of its very informal nature, it is extremely difficult to quantify and geographically document instances of illegal conversions. Late last year New York City publicly released 200 data sets through the online NYC Open Data portal. A constantly growing source of metrics about the city, few of these data sets help to reveal what is actually going on behind the buildings’ facades. One exception that does speak to the existence of an informal housing market is the 311 Service Requests data set that provides users with enough information to parse out occurrences of illegal conversion complaints. While information related to these complaints – such as whether there was a confirmation of a conversion or what kind of action was taken – is still not available, the data provides a notional, if incomplete, picture of neighborhoods where informal housing markets are concentrated. The visualization provided here shows a so-called heat map that indicates the areas in question. Represented by concentrations of bright blue, this map reveals that the majority of the “hot spots” occur in the outer boroughs, particularly, in the more remote sections of Queens, such as Jamaica, Elmhurst and Jackson Heights, where large numbers of first generation immigrants live.


III. Cellars

Entryway, cellar apartment in Woodside, Queens. Photo: Jeyhoun Allebaugh, 2014.


In New York City, a legal distinction is made between cellars and basements (the former is defined as having more than half of the unit’s height below curb level). At odds with both zoning and building code, most of these units are illegally occupied in high density neighborhoods, where housing options above ground are often not viable for recent immigrants with precarious financial and legal circumstances. While accommodating the city’s growing population at affordable rates, cellar units also help homeowners pay their mortgages. Yet, because cellar units are illegal under current regulations, tenants residing in them cannot claim basic housing rights. Certain cellar units have inadequate egress and ventilation which make them unsafe to occupy. Still, the appropriation of these spaces, while perhaps less than ideal, offers a much needed affordable option.

With assistance from Chhaya CDC, a housing advocacy organization dedicated to working with South Asian communities in Queens, we were able to gain access to document a cellar apartment in Woodside that was rented by a Bangladeshi family. The son, photographed here, currently attends Queen’s College, and lives in the unit with his father, a taxi driver. Shortly after these photographs were taken 7 additional family members from Bangladesh arrived to live in this apartment as well. According to current housing policy, this apartment—and thousands of others like it New York—are illegal, making their residents vulnerable to forced eviction at any time. As Chhaya has argued and campaigned for, there is much room for policy change to incentivize renovations that would allow the formerly illegal units to be safely brought to code. This can be done by introducing alterations such as a second means of egress and meeting minimum requirements for air, light and sanitation.


IV. Three-Quarter Houses

Pairs of bunkbeds occupy each bedroom. Three-quarter house in East New York, Brooklyn. Photo: Jeyhoun Allebaugh, 2014.


Three-Quarter houses offer housing to single adults under the model of supportive programs. Tenants who turn to these Three-Quarter houses for help are often returning from prison, short term hospital stays, drug treatment, or are suffering from family crises and cannot afford housing on the formal market. So-called Three-Quarter houses are generally one and two family houses or (more rarely) large apartments that rent out individual beds. While government agencies indirectly fund them, these apartments are often abandoned by the landlord or management and left unregulated and overcrowded. Without the proper oversight theses houses often fail to provide the promised services that the at-risk tenants need in order to transition into independent living. Instead, unlicensed and under maintained Three-Quarter houses often charge people with no alternative housing options for a bed in overcrowded, poorly maintained or even hazardous spaces. Meanwhile, residents are often unlawfully evicted if they refuse to comply with the house rules.

The tenant in the house pictured explained to us that the management company has abandoned the property leaving occupants to run it more or less on their own. The landlord has failed to pay the electricity bills for over a year, leaving the entire second story of the house without power. As a result, the tenants occupying this level were left with little choice but to reside there while looking for support and representation from the outside. The tenant, one of nine in the apartment, is a client of MFY Legal Services – an organization that provides pro-bono legal counsel. MFY assisted us in gaining access to document this apartment.


V. Flophouses

Michael Fidler, 66, originally from Brooklyn, has been living in this cubicle in the Sun Bright Hotel at 140 Hester Street for 11 years. The accommodations there measure 7 by 5 feet. Photo: William Farrington / Polaris


Relics of the tenement houses that Riis photographed more than a century ago, flophouses remain a fixture across the City. Flophouses are temporary residences where tenants generally pay less than $10 a night in order to sleep in tiny spaces where ceilings are often missing, bathrooms are shared, and ventilation is poor. Flophouses might take the shape of motels, SRO’s (single room occupancies), or other dormitory style housing. A typology concentrated in Chinatown and the South Bronx, these spaces frequently house single adults – a growing demographic within the city that crosses socio-economic boundaries. Flophouse tenants possess little-to-no privacy, housing stability is largely absent, and building conditions deteriorate with lack of oversight and regulation. However, with few viable affordable alternatives for single room occupancy housing, these spaces provide workforce housing to those who continuously sustain New York. Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg has, on more than one occasion, affectionately referred to New York as the “Luxury City.” This characterization, perhaps inadvertently, points to the primary role that the service sector plays in the everyday functioning of this city. Rendering visible and acknowledging this condition as a defining characteristic of New York is an essential starting point towards addressing the severity of inequality. New York’s current Mayor, Bill DiBlasio, was elected, in large part, because of his focus on addressing what he has called “Two New Yorks” and has made inequality in general and housing in particular central issues in his rhetoric during the first year of his administration. The informal housing market is just one of many symptoms of this unevenness, but it does provide a point of entry, a tangible manifestation of the extreme polarity that so defines New York.


VI. Shared Spaces

Two young couples and their four children share a two bedroom apartment with another single individual in Jackson Heights, Queens. Patrick Mandeville, 2014.


Existing housing stock in New York is often at odds with the demographics it hosts. Many newly arrived immigrant families move in with relatives or other families with already established networks. To accommodate the newcomers, existing families subdivide their homes, creating new, affordable housing options. While it is a condition that can be found city-wide and across architectural typologies, one of the most striking manifestations can be found in parts of Queens amidst concentrations of single and two-family detached residences. Originally designed for the nuclear family, these spaces now frequently serve multiple families at a time, often constituted of multi-generational households. This density, ensconced within spaces designed for idealized familial units of past eras is ubiquitous, if hidden from the street, in many parts of the City.

Two young couples and their four children share an apartment with another single individual in Jackson Heights, Queens. In this two bedroom apartment, the living room bathroom and kitchen function as communal spaces hosting synchronous and shared activities.

In another space documented in Flushing, Queens a rental unit is shared by residents who have subdivided using a curtain to create divisions within the living room space. This apartment is shared by a young Korean-American man and his mother who rent out their one bedroom to an elderly unrelated couple. Minkwon Center for Community Action, an organization dedicated to doing advocacy and legal work on behalf of the Asian-American immigrant communities based in Flushing, helped us gain access to document this space.


A shared and sub-divided apartment in Flushing, Queens. Jeyhoun Allebaugh, 2014.

‘Making Design Lab’ Documentary

Our documentary Making Design Lab will premier this Friday October 17th at the Architecture and Design Film Festival.

Making Design Lab is a short documentary that follows our team as we design, fabricate, and install the new 10,000 sq ft permanent exhibition space at the New York Hall of Science. Design Lab is a series of five activity areas designed to host an array of STEM and project-based learning activities. Conceived of as sites to foster and promote problem ideation, tinkering, testing, and displaying results – the architecture of Design Lab is intended to be integral to the types of critical discovery and making that is so crucial to the design process.

Our short will be presented as part of the ‘Maker’ program at the film festival, screening just before the feature length film Make, directed and shot by Mu-Ming Tsai. We are excited to present our short and to engage in discussion with other festival participants. Please find more information about the program and the Architecture and Design Film Festival here.

Making Design Lab will be showing at Tribeca Cinemas on Friday October 17th at 6:15 pm and Sunday October 19th at 3:15 pm.

NYC Makers The MAD Biennial – Opening

On Monday night we enjoyed celebrating the opening of NYC Makers: The MAD Biennial at the Museum of Arts and Design. The exhibition is now open to the public and will be on view until October 12th, 2014.

Photo by Gulshan Kirat for MAD Museum

Our exhibition environment entitled Castscape is located in the northeast gallery on the 5th floor of the museum, and serves as a display for a variety of artists and artisans including Jeff Zimmerman, Raul De Nieves, papabubble New York, Aranda\Lasch, and H E I D I L E E.

Photo by Gulshan Kirat for MAD Museum

Photo by Gulshan Kirat for MAD Museum

For more information about the exhibition and its concurrent public programming, please visit NYC Makers: The MAD Biennial’s exhibition page. To learn more about the process of making Castscape, please visit here.

NYC Makers: The MAD Biennial – Installation

This week we installed the exhibition environment for NYC Makers: The MAD Biennial, an exhibition at the Museum of Arts and Design that spotlights creative communities thriving across the five boroughs.  The concrete canvas structures will serve as a means to display a diversity of works of the 100 artisans, artists, and designers featured in the NYC Makers Biennial.


Spatial constraints required us to move the environment onto the site in 12 pieces, which were then assembled to form 6 units.  Together they create a continuous and fluid landscape that will hold each object in a unique and custom-tailored location.


The gallery exhibition will be accompanied by a series of public programs that will allow visitors to attend events related to acts of making in New York City. Programs include natural textile dyeing workshops, presentations of rare and never before seen 35mm films and discussions on the integral role of artists, designers, and artisans in our community. A complete calendar of events is available here.

NYC Makers opens at the Museum of Arts and Design on July 1st and will run until October 12th, 2014. For more information about the exhibition visit the museum’s website.

NYC Makers: The MAD Biennial – Fabrication Preview

We are currently fabricating a concrete canvas installation we designed for NYC Makers: The MAD Biennial at the Museum of Arts and Design. The exhibition will open on July 1st and will showcase the work of 100 NYC based makers, from furniture designers to pyrotechnists and candy manufacturers.


Photo by Patrick Mandeville.

Canvas impregnated with dry concrete is draped over wooden armatures to create the desired form, and is then hosed down to fix the fabric in place.


Photo by Patrick Mandeville.

The resulting installation of surfaces will organically wrap around the exhibition space and support the exhibition objects. This atypical application of an industrial canvas material contributes both conceptually and aesthetically to the exhibition’s focus on local making practices in design and manufacturing.


Photo by Patrick Mandeville.

To learn more about the exhibition, visit The Museum of Art and Design’s exhibition website.

Design Lab: Press Preview and Opening Reception

Last night we joined press, family, and friends for a reception and preview of Design Lab. Although officially open to the public this Saturday June 7th, programming in Studio, Sandbox, Makerspace and Backstage was in full swing!

New York Hall of Science's opening reception for the Design Lab at NySci in Queens, New York

Photo by Andrew Kelly for the New York Hall of Science.

SITU partner Aleksey Lukyanov-Cherny shared a few words about the making of Design Lab and Margaret Honey, President and CEO of the New York Hall of Science, spoke about the future of making and design at the museum.

New York Hall of Science's opening reception for the Design Lab at NySci in Queens, New York

Photo by Andrew Kelly for the New York Hall of Science.

New York Hall of Science's opening reception for the Design Lab at NySci in Queens, New York

Photo by Andrew Kelly for the New York Hall of Science.

NYSCI members and their families enjoyed the workshops in Design Lab’s five activity areas as fellows and staff guided the young visitors in model-making and building throughout the evening.

New York Hall of Science's opening reception for the Design Lab at NySci in Queens, New York

‘Happy City’ model-making in the Studio.
Photo by Andrew Kelly for the New York Hall of Science.

New York Hall of Science's opening reception for the Design Lab at NySci in Queens, New York

Building dowel structures in the Sandbox.
Photo by Andrew Kelly for the New York Hall of Science.

New York Hall of Science's opening reception for the Design Lab at NySci in Queens, New York

Shadow puppet making workshop in the Studio.
Photo by Andrew Kelly for the New York Hall of Science.

To learn more about Design Lab click here, or visit the New York Hall of Science’s website.

Design Lab: Install Roundup

Since early 2012, we’ve had our hands full designing, fabricating and finally installing Design Lab, a new permanent exhibition space in NYSCI’s lower pavilion with five activity areas where visitors of all ages can tinker with creative solutions to scientific and technological challenges. While some of the workshops are already in use by school groups, kids and families, Design Lab is finally near completion and will officially open to the public next Saturday, June 7th. We want to seize the opportunity and roundup the installation process so far.

photo by Andrew Kelly for the New York Hall of Science

Design Lab, close to completion in late May.
Photo by Andrew Kelly for the New York Hall of Science.

Design Lab invites makers to look at materials around them in new ways while engaging in activities, experiments and challenges that provide a deeper understanding of the engineering and design process. From developing self-propelling model cars to making colorful, scented candles, Design Lab offers loads of exciting programming year round.

The five activity areas
– Backstage, where visitors can invent solutions to a perfect performance of light, shadow and motion, is already in use.

photo by Andrew Kelly for the New York Hall of Science

Children create puppets for a shadow play in the Backstage.
Photo by Andrew Kelly for the New York Hall of Science.

– Sandbox, where visitors can build sturdy structures from wooden dowels and rubber bands they can stand inside, opened a few months ago.

photo by Andrew Kelly for the New York Hall of Science

Photo by Andrew Kelly for the New York Hall of Science.

– Studio, where visitors can construct a lit up model city with the help of electric circuits, already houses aspiring architects, electric engineers and lighting designers.


NYSCI visitors imagine their “Happy City” with paper models and electric circuits in the Studio. Photo by Patrick Mandeville.

– Treehouse, where visitors can explore gravity, shape and air resistance, is the last space nearing completion for the opening next week.


Photo by Patrick Mandeville.

– Maker Space, where visitors will learn to use tools that convert design ideas into prototypes, opened in 2012.

photo by Andrew Kelly for the New York Hall of Science

Photo by Andrew Kelly for the New York Hall of Science.

Watch the growth of Design Lab in time lapse:

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