Special Report: Walkable Streets

Hamilton's Great Places Can Teach Us About Livable Street Design

James Street North, Locke Street South and Ottawa Street North are among Hamilton's most vibrant, livable streets, providing object lessons on how to improve the livability of the rest of the city.

By Ryan McGreal
Published March 18, 2011

this article has been updated

At the same time as the City is working on developing a Pedestrian Master Plan, today's Spectator includes a report by Jeff Mahoney that three Hamilton streets are among the top five contenders for the Canadian Institute of Planners' Great Places in Canada contest: Locke Street South, James Street North, and Ottawa Street North.

(Aside: I can't tell you how happy I am to see Jeff's excellent writing finally getting the respect it deserves in the main section of the paper.)

Let's take a quick look at what these three streets have in common:

The upshot of this arrangement is that automobile traffic flows are generally pretty slow and pedestrians can enjoy a pleasant street environment in relative safety.

I don't know Ottawa Street that well - maybe someone who is better acquainted with its history would like to write about it here - but I've been following Locke and James for a number of years and have observed the common themes that inform both of their revivals.

Update: Larry Pattison wrote a great article about Ottawa Street.

Locke Street South

The recent history of Locke Street South is an interesting case in point. I've lived on or near it for most of my adult life and I've watched its renaissance with great interest.

La Jardiniere on Locke Street (RTH file photo)
La Jardiniere on Locke Street (RTH file photo)

Back in the 1980s and early 1990s, Locke was a street in serious decline. The street - and the neighbourhood - were following the same tragic trajectory of exodus, disinvestment and decay as so many other city neighbourhoods.

The street was a designated thoroughfare - wide and straight with great visibility, restricted curbside parking and no stops for hundreds of metres at a stretch. Fast traffic roared up and down the street en route to somewhere else. Motorcyclists and kids in hot rods used it as a drag strip. Businesses hung on for dear life.

Starting in the early 1990s, under pressure by then-ward 1 councillor Terry Cooke, Council forced the installation of a stop sign at Locke and Charlton over the strong objections of the traffic engineers, who protested that this was going to be a disaster that would back up traffic and increase the number of accidents.

A couple of years later, they installed another stop sign a block away, at Locke and Herkimer (a corner with a primary school and a church on opposite corners).

The traffic immediately began to calm down. It just wasn't as much fun to drag-race up a street with two stop signs. The street became less hostile and dangerous to pedestrians.

Local business owners organized and started developing joint strategies to improve the street and attract customers. All-day curbside parking was expanded, another stop was added at Locke and Tuckett (this one a pedestrian-activated traffic light), and a few investors started buying up properties, renovating them and seeking out a compatible mix of business tenants on the main floors.

Locke Street Festival, September 2009 (RTH file photo)
Thousands gather during the 2009 Locke Street Festival (RTH file photo)

Today, Locke is a prosperous, diverse central business district that draws a very large share of its business from people living in the neighbourhood and walking. Families have moved back into the surrounding neighbourhood in droves, property values have boomed (my house is worth three times what we paid for it in 2001), and Locke is widely recognized as one of Hamilton's most vibrant streets.

None of this would have been possible had council not mustered the political will to overrule the traffic engineers and transform the street from a thoroughfare - a fast network, if you will - into a local street - a slow network.

James Street North

Of course we can tell a similar story about James Street North. It wasn't so many years ago that former Ward 2 Councillor Ron Corsini told residents, "Forget about it. Shops and businesses are never going to return to James North. They're gone forever."

The two-way conversion of James Street North didn't single-handedly transform the street, any more than the installation of stop signs transformed Locke Street. Yet it did make it possible for the street to undergo a renaissance, by creating the conditions for a pedestrian-friendly environment that could attract customers to local businesses.

The public outcry when James North was converted to two-way was just astonishing. Irate letters to the editor in the Spectator predicted all sorts of mayhem: not only total gridlock, but also the final collapse of the struggling businesses that had survived on James once motorists started completely avoiding the street.

This reminds me of the old Yogi Berra line: "No one goes there anymore. It's always too crowded."

Of course, the sky didn't fall and it didn't take long for signs of life to materialize.

The revitalization of James North has been steady and incremental. Like Locke Street, James has benefited from dedicated investors who have been buying buildings, renovating them and seeking a compatible mix of tenants.

Because of its central location and intimate streetscape, James is natural site for public gatherings. Whether it's the Soccer World Cup, last year's Open Streets events or the annual Supercrawl, James is just a wonderful place for large numbers of people to gather and celebrate.

Celebrants throng the street after Italy's win in the 2005 World Cup (RTH file photo)
Celebrants throng the street after Italy's win in the 2005 World Cup (RTH file photo)

Thousands of people enjoying the 2010 Supercrawl (RTH file photo)
Thousands of people enjoying Supercrawl 2010 (RTH file photo)

The steady redevelopment of James Street has even generated some controversy as artists, investers and entrepreneurs come into conflict with antipoverty activists worried about gentrification. What a difference a few years can make.

(h/t to WRCU2 for posting a link to Jeff Mahoney's article)

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan writes a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. He also maintains a personal website and has been known to post passing thoughts on Twitter @RyanMcGreal. Recently, he took the plunge and finally joined Facebook.

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By Participant (anonymous) | Posted March 18, 2011 at 07:43:01

Ryan, maybe check the reference to a stop sign at Locke and Queen (?). Nice observation re: Jeff Mahoney, a local treasure for sure.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted March 18, 2011 at 07:48:22 in reply to Comment 61142

Oops, that should be Locke and Charlton. Thanks for catching the error - it's fixed now.

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By MattM (registered) | Posted March 18, 2011 at 09:20:19

Good article.

I live near Ottawa Street and have witnessed a very similar transformation in the past 2-3 years. A lot of people attribute it to the horrid Centre Maul development, but I noticed the big changes well before that even took shape. Ottawa Street has always been a fairly quiet and calm two-way street, so the pedestrian element was always there. Little things like the Kiwanis square and beautifications have gone a long way to bring more tenants back to the BIA.

I took a walk along from Barton to Cannon a week ago to pick up some things at Crash Landing for the first time in about a year and the change was just remarkable. There is a very big increase in art galleries and antique shops, so much so that the textile stores are becoming the minority. You can definitely see an increase in people on the street and places like Lemoncello seem to do a killing with that generous patio space. A lot of businesses that left Centre Mall have also spilled over into the part of Ottawa nearer to Barton Street, a few even locating on Barton itself.

I predict that Ottawa Street is really going to take off in the next few years as even more tenants relocate from the more upscale parts of Hamilton and Toronto. I also predict that Barton Street will keep receiving the spill off effects, possibly even sparking a rejuventation of Kenilworth... another street with some big potential. Although the eyes are always on Locke and James North, Ottawa Street is really gonna get put on the map now.

Comment edited by MattM on 2011-03-18 09:22:01

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By lawrence (registered) - website | Posted March 18, 2011 at 11:22:40 in reply to Comment 61147

Well said, Matt. I couldn't agree more and one can only hope, that Barton St itself seems some transformation as Ottawa St continues to grow, and we look at developing a stadium district. My concern is between Gage and Ottawa St where Barton is concerned. There are a couple of new(er) shops closer to Ottawa St, but in general there is some work to be done. Even things like the new oil and lub shop off of Belmont, or the parts store across the street. If these small things can continue to happen like James St N, these areas in our city can hopefully transform as desirable places to walk and shop.

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By nobrainer (registered) | Posted March 18, 2011 at 09:23:36 in reply to Comment 61147

There's a connection between Locke and Ottawa, as Locke gets more upscale and expensive, alot of the antique and consignment stores that used to be on Locke are moving to Ottawa.

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By lawrence (registered) - website | Posted March 18, 2011 at 11:23:14 in reply to Comment 61148

I have seen that too. I really love the addition of the art galleries as well.

Comment edited by lawrence on 2011-03-18 11:41:36

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By MattM (registered) | Posted March 18, 2011 at 09:34:43 in reply to Comment 61148

Good point. Here's an article that the Spec did awhile back on that:

http://www.thespec.com/news/local/articl...

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By jason (registered) | Posted March 18, 2011 at 10:10:59

Ottawa St was coming back to life long before the Centre Maul project. The only people who try to give that butcher job credit are the ones who approved it.

Locke is a fantastic street, and only getting better. Ditto for James and Ottawa. I'm stunned that Cannon or Main didn't make the list as great Canadian streets with all of their beautiful trucks and....trucks.

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By IAmWoody (registered) | Posted March 18, 2011 at 10:57:54

The other week I was looking across the sea of asphalt that is the new Centre on Barton toward the small stores, services, and banks that have their backs to Barton Street. I though to myself: those businesses could have anchored a renovated, restored, and in-filled Keniworth Ave stretching from Barton to Main. What I envisioned was a low rise streetwall, although I had not heard that term before. Kenilworth would have been revitalized the same as Locke, James, and Ottawa streets. The big box stores could have been pushed toward Barton. The remaining land along the rail line could have been developed for light industrial/commercial use: the type of business envisioned for the Aerotropolis. The industrial development would have easy road access to Burlington St via Ottawa St and a possible rail spur.

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By BMward3 (anonymous) | Posted March 27, 2011 at 20:59:24 in reply to Comment 61154

Why not contact your councillor Bernie Morelli and have him push a motion to make those stores open up the the street.

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By MattM (registered) | Posted March 18, 2011 at 11:11:38 in reply to Comment 61154

The original "vision" for the Centre was much more pedestrian oriented with most businesses facing Barton Street, parking in the back.

Of course Sammy lied to us and what we got is a wall of stucco from Kenilworth to Ottawa with a race track behind it. There was certainly a lot of potential.

Comment edited by MattM on 2011-03-18 11:12:29

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By LoveIt (anonymous) | Posted March 18, 2011 at 16:31:00 in reply to Comment 61155

And what a difference would be having signature landscaped places here and there instead of a stuco wall. Let local artists add a few modern/classic sculptures as they see fit, and what a Barton street we could have.
They did it nice in Toronto on Queen/Dufferin corner right near the rail track.

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By lawrence (registered) - website | Posted March 18, 2011 at 11:26:07 in reply to Comment 61155

Good pun on the race track. The old derby returns - sort of.

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By slodrive (registered) | Posted March 18, 2011 at 12:40:55

I find the resurgence of these neighbourhoods pretty inspiring. Mostly because of the speed and how it happens almost in spite of the opinion/perceptions/ efforts of many citizens and elected officials. Obviously there are many to be commended for their efforts, but overcoming the naysaying is a feat unto itself.

The strip that I'm really hoping experiences a resurgence is the stretch around the Royal Cannaught. I've heard this is being turned into a residence/ hotel hybrid -- I've lost track of where that soap opera is at currently...I'm sure most here would know more than me -- but I could see an instantaneous revival of the blight that I see in that stretch. Which, could very well be the biggest eyesore of the city.

Otherwise, as I've stated before, I'm always surprised (based on what popular belief seems to be) at how active our downtown actually is. Looking forward to spending more time there.

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By graham (registered) | Posted March 18, 2011 at 12:47:09

I knew Locke had made it when they installed parking meters. I can't think of a single vibrant street that has free parking on it. My only wish is that the city had installed meters that took credit cards. The machines they installed were obsolete the day they were made.

Hamilton has a love affair with free parking and I'm sure that people complain about having to pay to park on Locke. However, in speaking with a small business owner with a small shop front on Locke, she's happy with the new meters. It means that the street parking is available for her customers instead of being filled up by business owners who, frankly, should be parking elsewhere.

Great observations, Ryan, about the cross section of the street. The distances from building to sidewalk to street, the width of the sidewalks, the locations of street trees - all these things make a huge huge impact on the quality of a street for business and pedestrians. Aberdeen, for example is a perfect example of what happens when the street wall (in this case houses) are set too far back from the street.

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By Rudy Tuesday (anonymous) | Posted March 22, 2011 at 13:17:59 in reply to Comment 61164

A distinction worth mentioning is that Aberdeen is not principally a business district or anything close to mixed-use. Aside from a hundred-yard stretch at the Dundurn intersection (and perhaps another hundred yards around Longwood), Aberdeen is almost entirely residential – and I would imagine that the setbacks you see from Dundurn to Bay are a reflection of the baronial air that the city's upper crust was looking to evoke when it erected its mansions along that stretch. It is not, however, Central Park West or Le Septième Arrondissement.

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By nobrainer (registered) | Posted March 22, 2011 at 13:26:10 in reply to Comment 61351

Aberdeen is almost entirely residential

All the more reason to slow the cars down!

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By Rudy Tuesday (anonymous) | Posted March 22, 2011 at 14:33:29 in reply to Comment 61352

Was never suggesting that road speeds on Aberdeen shouldn't be reduced, just addressing the setbacks, which are artifacts of an era when those were seats sof privilege. (I have no idea what the horse 'n' buggy speeds were back in the day.) I'm unconvinced that siting those huge homes within spitting distance of the sidewalk would yield any measurable benefit to the pedestrian experience or livability issues. If nothing else, you'd have a far harder time gauging when someone was about to pull out of their driveway.

Maybe also worth noting that two of the three sainted neighbourhoods have achieved momentum through a variety of factors (common factors include a shift in real estate demographics and the stewardship of a BIA, a Merchant's Association, or both). As Jason notes regarding the Centre Mall development, correlation is not causation.

Also worth noting that the livability formula does thin out even within these districts – both Locke South and James North are bit of a dog's breakfast north of the rail tracks.

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By Downtown is a bargain (anonymous) | Posted March 18, 2011 at 13:52:35

http://www.icx.ca/propertyDetails.aspx?propertyId=9931278&PidKey=965464654

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By Fred Street (anonymous) | Posted March 20, 2011 at 16:44:08 in reply to Comment 61167

That place has been vacant forever and a day... commercial real estate agents in the core must have camel DNA. With the exception of the One James South ground floor turnaround, there's no shortage of square footage to be found.

IMHO (don't hate me), that CIP contest reeks of neediness. Truly great places don't need outside validation, etc. Take a broad look at the scoreboard and you can see how wicky-wacky it is: small towns generally go bananas, cities could usually care less.

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By Rudy Tuesday (anonymous) | Posted March 22, 2011 at 10:55:51 in reply to Comment 61213

And the devil is in the details. Hamilton landed three streets, yes, but vital, noteworthy activity is focused on maybe about a dozen city blocks in total across those three streets. (Overlooking entirely that this is a city with a population of over a half-million.)

Initially impressive though the Ottawa/Locke/James North voting is, the prestigious profile of this contest is evidenced by its woeful crowdsourcing numbers. The Canadian Institute of Planners obviously has little to celebrate in the likes of:

Evergreen Brick Works
Toronto, ON
Public Space
Votes: 15

Chinatown
Toronto, ON
Neighbourhood
Votes: 18

The Beaches
Toronto, ON
Neighbourhood
Votes: 35

Distillery District
Toronto, ON
Neighbourhood
Votes: 42

Kensington Market
Toronto, ON
Neighbourhood
Votes: 42

Downtown Guelph
Guelph, ON
Neighbourhood
Votes: 86


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By lawrence (registered) - website | Posted March 22, 2011 at 14:21:11 in reply to Comment 61325

While there are many great streets that obviously are more cherised than the 50 or so votes they have obtained, this competition obviously hasn't gotten the national exposre needed to truly have a competition of Canadian Communities.

This is however the first ever competition by this group and should Hamilton win this, the exposure either way is a good thing for our city. Our mayor will be handed a plaque presented by the CIP, which will reside somewhere along Ottawa Street.

Would we have won if Toronto had really gotten wind of this? Certainly Greek Town would have been up in the millions in votes. Same thing could be said for many other historic streets, neighborhoods, and communities across this nation.

As Canadians we love hockey which means we also love healthy compettion. Canadians love to sell their country.

What I do think is amazing, is that this competition started in November and Ottawa Street in particular was only nominated a few weeks ago. We passed all the leaders in that timeframe and are now sitting at number one in votes. Main Street in Summerland BC was already at over a 1,000 votes I believe, when Ottawa Street was just starting out.

I think that community might have went all gung-ho in the early goings and reazlied there wasn't much competition and all but forgot to check back. I wouldn't count them out yet - or any other place including the two other leading streets in our community.

From these past few weeks, I would like to think that Ottawa Street has a lot of support from the residents and shopppers and given 4 months to vote, we would have still been up there with the best.

So I do see your point, but I believe the dynamics would have just driven this to an entirely different level.

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By Rudy Tuesday (anonymous) | Posted March 22, 2011 at 14:35:41 in reply to Comment 61358

I just find it comical that Hess Village may end up outstripping Kensington Market.

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By Fred Street (anonymous) | Posted March 24, 2011 at 14:32:06 in reply to Comment 61362

None of these Neighbourhoods are really in the running, but it's some added perspective.

Hess Village / Hamilton, ON / Votes: 57
Distillery District / Toronto, ON / Votes: 48
Kensington Market / Toronto, ON / Votes: 46
Old Montreal / Montreal, QC / Votes: 45
The Beaches / Toronto, ON / Votes: 37
Kitsilano / Vancouver, BC / Votes: 37
The Junction / Toronto, ON / Votes: 31
Uptown Waterloo / Waterloo, ON / Votes: 22
Mile End / Montréal, QC / Votes: 22
Chinatown / Toronto, ON / Votes: 20

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By lawrence (registered) - website | Posted March 18, 2011 at 14:14:11 in reply to Comment 61167

Wow! At $15, I can finally afford to invest in Hamilton. I wonder how many calls those real-estate agents have gotten.

I will say, that these agents could certainly sell the area a little better. Really? Shopping and transit? Is that only highlight of that space? How about a photo of a typical unit? Some other photos of nearby shops and what not. Not that it will be a hard sell at under 20 bucks.

Comment edited by lawrence on 2011-03-18 14:16:41

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By graham (registered) | Posted March 18, 2011 at 15:12:18 in reply to Comment 61169

Lawrence - I think its $15/sqft/yr ..

So with 14,474 sqft thats $217,110/yr or $18,092/mo.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted March 18, 2011 at 17:43:54 in reply to Comment 61175

That's correct. I confirmed with the real estate agent.

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By lawrence (registered) - website | Posted March 18, 2011 at 16:26:48 in reply to Comment 61175

Sounds more like it. I just figured the $15 was a typo. I guess if you were in the market for this type of rental space, you would know what that $15 referred to.

I wonder how much I could get for renting out my double-wide garage? $18K a month. Man alive!

I am sure that is good for a downtown location but still. As Velma Dinkley used to say 'Jinkies'.

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By hammerman (registered) | Posted March 18, 2011 at 14:44:00

It would be great to see Dundurn between Main and Aberdeen slow down with the addition of lights or stop signs... and watch that street redevelop into a better area too!

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By rednic (registered) | Posted March 19, 2011 at 08:58:15

Its interesting all these article (about traffic calming ) refer to 'traffic engineers' can you write an about who these guys are most importantly where they live ? My thinking is not one of them lives in downtown hamilton and hence see the downtown as somewhere to pass thru. Perhaps if the position was renamed to some thing like Urban Safety Engineer they would understand that traffic consists of more than cars desperately trying to make the next light..

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By WRCU2 (registered) | Posted March 20, 2011 at 18:04:21

I don't know Ottawa Street that well - maybe someone who is better acquainted with its history would like to write about it here

I appreciate the h/t Ryan but as far as writing about Ottawa Street history, I hesitate from trying because my wording is not that great and somewhat of a mystery.

FWIW - Here is a Qwiki that is kinda neat. Special thanks to Mahesh Butani for sharing this Innovation in Experiencing Information.

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By Rudy Tuesday (anonymous) | Posted March 23, 2011 at 13:33:18

An overdue arrival:

http://www.cip-icu.ca/greatplaces/en/place.asp?id=5353

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By lawrence (registered) - website | Posted March 23, 2011 at 15:33:47 in reply to Comment 61415

It should be noted that you can vote on multiple sites at once in each category, and you can vote every two hours. It works well on your blackberry too.

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By Rudy Tuesday (anonymous) | Posted March 23, 2011 at 17:10:28 in reply to Comment 61425

Another reason why this honour comes with a big ol' Bonds/McGwire asterisk. (At least Canadian Idol tells you how often you can vote – CIP seems to have left out the specifics of multiple and mobile voting entirely.)

And one more: It's doubly gamed.

"The winning first-place, second-place and third-place nominators in each category will be determined by a combination of the number of votes each place receives and the expert opinion of a panel of professional Planners chosen by the Canadian Institute of Planners."

Which is handy since Zwick Park is currently the greatest public space in Canada.

http://www.intelligencer.ca/ArticleDisplay.aspx?e=2873490
http://www.cip-icu.ca/greatplaces/en/place.asp?id=1033

Barry Egan, no stranger to the hammer, would be proud.

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By Rudy Tuesday (anonymous) | Posted May 16, 2011 at 16:02:52

Ottawa North takes the silver!

http://www.cip-icu.ca/greatplaces/en

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By Ottawa Street BIA (anonymous) | Posted May 16, 2011 at 19:45:51

Fantastic - lots of media attention today about the story and from B.C. to St. John's on the news wires. Thanks everyone for their support

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