Monument Circle Going Car Free For 2012 Super Bowl

In a fitting turn of events, the decision to pedestrianize Monument Circle has come full circle with the announcement that Indianapolis’s premiere public space will be closed off to auto travel during the week-long run-up to the Super Bowl next February.  According to Super Bowl Host Committee CEO Allison Melangton, the Committee is trying to raise money for a major entertainment endeavor on Monument Circle prior to the Super Bowl that would close the space to vehicular traffic, turning the Circle into a pedestrian mall.  According to Melangton, the Circle would be used for music activities and other major venues that would be a part of overall Super Bowl festivities.

The idea of pedestrianizing Monument Circle first arose during the early summer of 2010 when the City floated the idea of closing the Circle to cars for the month of August to effectively ‘see what happens.’  Following this announcement, considerable controversy and uproar arose and in no time the City backed away from the idea, stating that other options would instead be looked at to improve and upgrade Monument Circle.  But seven months later and here we are again discussing the space’s pedestrianization, but this time, with a program of activities included to ensure the space is constantly activated.

From a city marketing perspective, a pedestrianized Monument Circle, the new and improved Georgia Street and the world-class Cultural Trail will provide Super Bowl attendees a compact, pedestrian oriented experience that will separate Indianapolis from other host cities like Dallas and Miami.  From an urban design standpoint, the Circle overhaul builds on the pedestrianization acceleration movement occurring in cities like San Francisco and their Pavement to Parks initiative and New York’s Times Square redesign.  With its fair share of place pedestrianization occurring, Indianapolis will soon have a strong case for having the Midwest’s best downtown public spaces.

It is encouraging that the idea to ban cars from the Circle, even if just for a week, has not been entirely shelved as it is a step in a positive direction for the City’s public realm.  Hopefully this announcement will refuel the interest behind pedestrianizing the Circle, forcing the City to get serious about making it permanent, something that could be a major boon for downtown Indianapolis’s future image.  And if done correctly, pedestrianizing Monument Circle on a full-term basis would perhaps be the most innovative idea ever implemented in Indianapolis.  Where else in the Midwest can you find a piazza-esque pedestrian only public plaza in the heart of downtown?  This would set the city apart from its counterparts and set the bar for quality public spaces in the Midwest.  But as it stands today, the Circle is not ready for such a drastic change.  The following points briefly outline improvements that must take place in order for a long-term pedestrianization of the Circle to be successful:

  • The city needs to work with building owners that directly front the circle and transform the ground level space into pedestrian retail that spills out onto the Circle;
  • The Circle needs more programmed activities and on a regular basis, not just for special events;
  • Monument Circle needs a management group that oversees events, programming, maintenance and security.  Essentially, they would be in charge of programming the space and raising money and finding sponsors to fund such events; and
  • Changes outlined in the first three bullet points need to be a part of an overall design overhaul of the Circle.  Change needs to take place all at once to create increased excitement and energy in the district.

The Super Bowl is a culmination of a long and extremely successful effort to define Indianapolis as a sports town.  But as the City grows beyond this identity and matures into a bigger and better version of its current self, more improvements need to be made to make the City more urban, more compact, more cosmopolitan, more mature.  Pedestrianizing Monument Circle, implementing a public space plan, and creating a legacy of premiere public spaces would go a long way towards helping Indianapolis achieve such goals.

Comments 27

  • I think a partial closing of the circle could work. A great step would be activating Market Street east to make a connection with the CIty Market. A georgia St style renovation would make for a welcoming front door to the market, especially as the cultural trail is planned to go south on Alabam to washington st and not along Market.

  • I disagree that this (or any other) experiment or temporary programming should lead to the permanent exclusion of cars from the Circle. I am generally fine with closing the circle for major events, and there no doubt can be enough “stuff” programmed during SB week to justify the temporary closing.
    However, the circle was designed for vehicular traffic 200 years ago. It was never intended as a pedestrian-only space. Today it is as good an example of shared space as exists in the Midwest: no signals, no signs, negotiation required.
    I strongly recommend that interested planners and urbanites read the document prepared by Eden Collaborative at
    The “problem” with the Circle isn’t traffic. It’s lack of programming. Placemaking advocates understand and preach that there is a need to actively manage “places”. Indianapolis’ focus should be on empowering someone to program the Circle consistently.
    Since it happened before many young folks were born, I’ll remind that downtown pedestrian malls created in the 1970’s not only drove cars away, but people too. It’s just a bad idea, proven so in city after city. The idea hasn’t gotten better with age.

  • Chris,

    I am one of those “young folk” you refer to and I can point out two pedestrian malls, both of which I have lived within feet of within the past five years, that appear to be flourishing: 3rd Street Promenade in Santa Monica, CA and Lincoln Road in South Beach (where I live currently).

  • Chris, the difference between the pedestrian malls of the 1970’s and the pedestrian malls popping up all over the United States today is that in the 1970’s they used it as a tool to attract people to certain areas. Today, as seen in SF and New York (and all over Europe mind you – take a look at the how pedestrian malls have affected the vitality of Iraklion, Crete) they are placing pedestrian malls where there is already foot traffic to justify the move. This takes a place with an already thriving pedestrian realm and makes it better. The APA Magazine recently did a large piece on the increased popularity of pedestrian malls in America. You should check it out because they are proving to work this time around. So yes, the idea HAS gotten better with age because planners now realize it shouldn’t be used as a tool for attracting people but should instead be used to make an already active pedestrian place that much better.

    Making Monument Circle a ped. only as it stands today would be a bad idea because it is reverting back to the 1970’s model of putting the chicken before the egg. But given proper improvements the Circle would be perfect for ped. only in the long-term. I believe this is a goal we should work towards.

    • All of the examples cited here (SF, Santa Monica, South Beach, Iraklion) have significant climate advantages over Indy. That is non-trivial.

      • That isn’t true. The Nicollet Mall allows buses but for all intensive purposes is a pedestrian mall……..and the climate in Mpls is far harsher than Indy. The pedestrian mall is extremely popular in the Nordic nations of Europe and the UK as well as southern Europe. To be successful, pedestrian malls need to be well designed and provide ready access to retail facilities. Weather does not have to be a deterrent. Having said all that, it doesn’t look to me that Monument Circle is a good candidate for a pedestrian mall.

  • The multi-functionality of the circle is the most exciting part of the space. There’s nothing better than all the activity, which includes people, cars, businesses, horses, etc. It takes all of these elements to keep this space thriving. Remove some of the elements, and the whole suffers. Close it for special events only, otherwise, realize history has shown us the way on the circle, and let it be.

    If we want to experiment to see if new things are working, Let’s use Georgia Street and come up with a plan for Pam Am Plaza. Now there’s a space that could use some “programming”.

  • Aaron, I agree with you – as it stands today, if we took out one element then the others would suffer. But I believe that a vibrant pedestrian district is far more exciting than one including cars. And the improvements made to Times Square and the increased revenues to Square restaurants, etc. seem to speak to this. Monument Circle can be better. Much better. It deserves to be better. I think implementing the 4 bullets posted in the piece would make the Circle much better, with an ultimate goal of full peestrianization in the long run.

  • I agree with your suggestions Greg. With improvements to the properties fronting the circle, a diverse area can be created for people to spend time. As I have said repeatedly in the past, people do not flock to the circle because the cars are there. People will go there regardless of that. And it will be a safer place to stretch your legs as a result. None of the businesses currently there are sustained by an autombile based feed of consumers, and those that rely on automobiles, can reconfigure to handle any changes that take it away.

    I applaud any effort to give this place to pedestrians.

    • Curt, I disagree vehemently regarding three significant Monument Circle institutions: Circle Theater, Columbia Club, and Christ Church Cathedral. Re-orientation of their building away from the front door is non-trivial.
      Also, all three cater to some degree to older people who simply won’t walk, no matter how much we lecture, hector, cajole, or “force” them to.

  • Not enough people live within the CBD or reasonable proximity to derive much benefit from closing this area to automobiles permanently.

  • I think this is a good plan. Closing the circle for temporary events, when the pedestrian activity justifies it, is a great way to show off the main public space in the city. I also think that building the circle into a more active pedestrian area would be a great goal for the city.

  • I think the unfortunate and overlooked portion of any non-vehicular planning is that the majority of the visitors to the circle in Indianapolis will need to travel to visit. Couple that with simple economics of running a retail business in a pedestrian only environment. Santa Moncia, New York, Milan and a number of other places were and are successful w/pedestrian only venues because they have the density without visitors to make it work. Indianapolis lacks the density to pull off a pedestrain friendly environment that will be economically sustaining to the business we all would hope to frequent.

  • “However, the circle was designed for vehicular traffic 200 years ago.” 200 years ago we didn’t have cars that travel at 20-30mph in the core. Besides who says we have to close the entire circle? Those that are handicap could be allow to drive in a lane to the Hilbert Circle Theater and the Columbia Club for events, other than that you could close it to all other traffic.

    The circle and Georgia St could both very well look like this in the future (as far as the amount of pedestrians and zero cars [photos taken in São Paulo]) :

    Here’s some vids of Times Square:

    Off topic but IUPUI could look into what NTU in Singapore is planning:

    • Regardless of the kind or speed, the Circle was designed as a place for traffic, and it has always carried traffic. Today, it carries horse-drawn carriages, bikes, motorcycles, cars…all at different speeds. And when was the last time you heard about a traffic fatality on the Circle?
      Indianapolis isn’t NYC, and the Circle isn’t Times Square, and it’s ridiculous to try and draw a parallel. We should aspire to define our own public space in Indianapolis, not just copy what Mayor Bloomberg has done in NYC.

  • I definitely find this concept and the overall idea interesting, but also agree that this city may not be ready for such a change. With the continued sprawl of the city, the notes on parking and the nature of the pedestrian traffic being, often, tourist or commuter, are very important. Not everyone is as progressive and committed to the urban experience as a choice in lifestyle.

    I wonder if, in addition to your previous four suggestions for implementation, there are ways to incentivize increases in urban density starting in the city center and reflecting the radio-centric nature of many European cities. Also, adding a “city limit” might build the kind of desired density for the success of this type of change in Indianapolis in the long-term as has worked for Portland, OR. Until you begin to alter the nature of the interaction with the space it’s nothing if not a lot of potentially good ideas for improved use. You’d have to modify the relationships that people have with the space before altering the space – I think most will agree.

    So I welcome the experimentation with the space. If the city maintained a climate comparable to Dallas or Miami I think this would be welcomed with much less upheaval. The Super Bowl will test the desire of patrons to brave the elements in the pursuit of leisure and play. I hope that some cohesion on which ways to develop public spaces are better or worse for Indianapolis will come from this event.

  • The circle is a place that attracts people year round to take pictures of the monument, sit on the step and have lunch or ice cream during warm weather, and a centralized location to meet people or to cross by foot to another part of downtown. People do not frequent the circle because there are cars there and they sure do not shop in the shops and restaurants by the circle without parking elsewhere downtown first. Removing the cars with have a positive impact and a place where concerts, events, gatherings can take place a lot quicker and easier without disruption of traffic. Downtown has sufficient alternate routes that make the closing of the circle (which many times is already closed or partially closed on weekends anyway) a viable option without huge traffic consequences. I envision something like in Munich by townhall where the breweries and restaurants have outdoor seating that are always full. Even in the winter these areas are covered and heated with outdoor heatlamps similar to what will likely be used during the Superbowl.

  • I think in the long term that the circle could be converted into a near pedestrian only plaza, but it will take some time. There does need to be more population densification to make it work and there obviously needs to be more retail and restaurant space that is engaging to the pedestrian and as stated earlier spills onto the circle.

    These near pedistrian only plaza’s are all over europe. Within the last year, I have been to several in Wiesbaden, Germany; Strausburg, France and Brugge, Belgium and they are fantastic. Engaging restaurants, architecture, history, retail and lots of people. There is a very small level of traffic allowed in all of the areas as well for certain venues. This could easily be accomplished in Indy. However, all of those places have dense populations nearby which make them sustainable year end. That is the key that Indy is lacking right now for a pedestrianized circle to be completely successful.

    Until there is sufficient population downtown, I think closing the circle for special events is appropriate. It would be great to close the circle more often for a weekend concert series and other events to take place at a more frequent interval. However, I would like to see a more eye pleasing barrier used rather than Orange and White barricades to close of the circle. Big Planters that could be moved to block the street or barriers that are hidden in the street when not in use would make for a more visually stimulating experience at least.

  • Firstly, I totally agree with Chris Barnett, full time traffic closure on the Circle would be an enormous mistake. I’ve read this, and many other, articles about the subject and not one of them has answered the most basic question: Why? Why would making the Circle pedestrian only improve it? What are the tangible benefits? All i see are phrases like “pedestrian oriented experience,” “the Midwest’s best downtown public spaces,” “a major boon for downtown Indianapolis’s future image,” and most laughably “the most innovative idea ever implemented in Indianapolis.” Innovative? A Pedestrian Mall? Please! Until someone can point to a single, concret benefit for full closure–while simultaneously acknowledging the costs–this and all other article like it seem only to say: “I like pedestrian malls. Pedestrian malls are good. If we had a Pedestrian mall then we could say ‘Hey, look, we have a Pedestrian Mall! Isn’t that neat!?'” I’m all in favor of making the city more pedestrian friendly, but nowhere does this, or any other article of the same vein, explain how the Circle is currently unfriendly to pedestrians. Where is the data on collisions and fatalities? Where are the traffic studies? Where’s the substance? All I see is boosterism for a personal preference.

    Secondly, I totally agree with Aaron, the mix of modes is what makes the Circle exciting, safe and visible. IMHO it is already “the Midwest’s best downtown public space.” Bikes, people, carriages, delivery trucs, limos, cops, and yes CARS, all work together to create the feel of a vibrant, living, active place where everything seems to be happening at once. Lacking any signals or signage all users are forced to remain alert of their surroundings and what the other users of the space are doing. Not to mention the circular form, textured pavement and vertical elements in the form of trees and bollards all work together to force drivers to slow down and pay attention. From my own personal observations, most motorists seem to assume that pedestrians have the right of way and are far more courteous to people on foot than at signalized intersections. The sidewalks on the Circle, both outside and inside are also some of the widest in the city. Even at the peak of lunch hour there’s more than enough room for all the people using the space. Perhaps most importantly, the vehicular traffic makes the Circle visible, especially to people from out of town and locals who don’t frequent downtown. I recall reading a blog entry from a certain Buckeye transplant who, newly arrived in Indy, unfamiliar with the streets and not yet embarking on his car-free lifestyle, discovered the Circle by accident in, of all things, a CAR! How much longer would it have taken him, or any out-of-towner, to find this urban gem had it been closed to vehicular traffic? Take away the cars and you take away the visibility. Even the current pedestrianization of Georgia street seems to understand this and doesn’t eliminate car traffic altogether.

    Thirdly, Comparisons between the Circle and Times Square or anywhere in San Francisco & Europe are absurd, like comparing apples and The Big Apple. Apart from the aesthetics, Times Square had a genuine logistical problem: there were more people on the sidewalks than the infrastructure could accomodate. Pedestrians were literally spilling out into traffic. When it comes to the scale of place, the density of residents and business, the draw for tourists, the accessibility to transit, and the pedestrian oriented lifestyle of those places, Indy doesn’t hold a candle to their bonfire. As for any city in CA, AZ or FL, the benefits of their climate, one Indy does not share, cannot be overstated. How many people do you imagine would trudge down to the Circle with their feet when there’s a foot of snow on the ground?

    Finally, I want to say that I fully support closing the Circle to traffic for special events, maybe even on a regularly scheduled basis. Perhaps a First Friday Festival or Sunday Farmers Markets. Maybe more groups and festivals could be allowed/encouraged to hold events there. The key being, if your going to close the Circle, do it for a good reason as part of a managed program, not just because you think pedestrian malls are neat. Besides, Indy already has a high quality pedestrian mall: The Canal. I think it’s time we stop spending so much energy trying to fix what isn’t broken with the Circle and focus on our existing, under performing pedestrian spaces.

  • Nick, based on your tone in your argument, it doesn’t seem you are clear as to where I am coming from or the point I am trying to make. So let me clarify. My point is that pedestrian only plazas are better experiences for pedestrians and for an overall human experience than spaces with cars going through it. This has been my experience traveling throughout North America, the Middle East, and Europe. I can’t think of better human experiences or places that cater to human interaction better than the piazzas of Italy, the souks of the Middle East, or the pedestrian streets of Quebec City. Monument Circle does not compare to the experiences of these spaces. This means that the Circle can be better. And why shouldn’t it – it is the symbol of the City and focusing efforts on improving it only improves the image of the City.

    As it stands today, Monument Circle might be one of the prettiest public spaces in the Midwest, but it is not even close to being the most exciting, vital, or alive. Its my experience (and noted urbansits and public space experts would back me up on this notion (see William White) that Fountain Square (a pedestrian only square) in Cincinnati is a better experience than the Circle. Not as aesthetically pleasing but a better experience. This is due to the lack of retail and activation uses spilling out on the Circle and a lack of programmed events.

    Finally, the Canal is not a good example of a pedestrian mall. It is good for recreation purposes, but all you need to do is travel to San Antonio to see what a real canal experience is supposed to be. QuiteIn my opinion, the Canal in Indy is a major letdown and a missed opportunity. I agree we should focus efforts on improving the Canal but, Monument Circle can and should be a lot better IMO. As I Said before, it is the symbol of Indy in a lot of ways so we ought to be focusing our efforts on something that means so much to the City and the region. As a principle to public spaces, I believe we ought to be constantly looking for ways to improve our public spaces and not settling for mediocrity.

    • I agree. Monument Circle is the center of Indianapolis, and what would be a more fitting tribute to democracy than to focus on the pedestrian?

      Besides, what’s the worst that could happen? We decide to change it back after a few years if it doesn’t work out? That doesn’t seem like a big risk.

      • Among the “worst that would happen” is that the office buildings that actually occupy the Circle will empty out. People seem to forget that above the street level are thousands of daily workers — the people who currently already support Downtown. Businesses do not want to have their customers and workers overly inconvenienced. Handicapped clients, dropping off of documents, popping in for a visit — these are things not easily handled with a completely closed off Circle.

        I fully agree with those who believe more could be done with the Circle. My favorite plan of the recent Circle contest was the one wherein the waterfalls were replaced with hilly parkland.

        Yes! More retail on the main floor of the newer buildings. Yes! New cafes, etc. Yes! Skating and seasonal activities. Possibly Yes! To a reduced number of lanes (4 to 3? Maybe 2 if the police would stop taking up the inner lane.

        It’s a matter of tweaking.

  • Could we just start with the basics? Indy’s goal for the next ten years should be to make downtown simply livable. A new mixed-use, moderate to high density Indy style architecture coupled with our new transit plan. Let’s talk about closing the circle permanently when the culture here allows…maybe 50 years from now?

  • The thing that gives me pause is that closing the circle to traffic also effectively closes Market and Meridian streets for one block to the N,S,E,W of the circle. (Unless a series streets dead-ending into the circle is desirable, which would be odd.) So we really talking about a rather large pedestrian only area receiving minimal street presence. In my mind that brings up two issues: 1. Auto traffic does have a benefit of providing ambiance of activity and eyes on the street. Activity begets activity. This may not be a problem in the daylight when the weather is nice, but I fear it could feel a bit desolate on off hours in the dead of winter. That can’t be great proposition for retailers. Don’t forget that comparable places like Fountain Square in Cincy are bound by streets on two sides. 2. It is a lot of space to program. Generally I am leery of relying on programming to activate public spaces. They need to stand on their own to really succeed.
    While complete pedestrianization is a good goal, there may be more immediate traction in a more thoughtful halfway implementation. Two possibilities: a regular schedule of circle closings, say Friday evening through Monday morning May through October. Or pedestrianize the south half of the circle (and Market Street) and make Market one way heading west, routing cars along the northern half of the circle.

  • anhe, all excellent points. Closing the Circle means creating yet another super block in the heart of the city, joining the state house campus, the convention center, the stadium, and the ever expanding Lilly campus. The more places we restrict cars from going, the more cars there will be in the places they can go.

    Greg, I thought I understood the point you were trying to make quite well, but perhaps I should clarify the points on which I think we agree and disagree. The Circle can and should be better. Agreed. I am all for making improvements and updates where necessary (in fact lets start with those hideously dated light posts that should have come out when Market Square Arena came down) to the street furniture and amenities. Lets work with property owners to get more street level retailers, particularly in the northwest corner. I’m also all in favor of the Circle being seen and used as a venue for public events beyond the Festival of Lights and 500 Parade. I’m even in favor of regularly scheduled closings on a monthly, bimonthly or even weekly basis–provided that closing coincides with a programed event. In total, we should strive to improve the physical appearance, economic vitality and human experience on the Circle. Agreed.

    Where we disagree is how to achieve those goals. I do not believe that excluding cars will do anything to further those goals but would have the opposite effect. I would argue that by eliminating car traffic, you are not just eliminating cars, but also a great many of the people you so frequently refer to as “pedestrians.” Perhaps having lived the car free lifestyle for a full year you have forgotten what life was like before, but the vast majority of the people you see walking on the Circle every day got there in a car. Their vehicle may be parked at a meter on Meridian or in a multi-story garage a couple of blocks away. Either way, that person walking the Circle right now is only a pedestrian for a short part of his or her day and there’s no way of knowing how many of them were influenced to stop and get out after first driving around the Circle. Maybe the kids saw the sign announcing Chocolate, or a housewife saw a sign for her favorite singer coming to the Hilbert, or Aunt Milly was being shown around town and decided this was a spot worth expending her little bit of energy to walk around and see the Big City. The point is, if you remove the cars, you remove the vast majority of the eyes on the Circle and you remove the possibility for spontaneity. Without the cars, the Circle is out of site for the vast majority of people in Indianapolis, and will all to quickly become out of mind as well.

    Furthermore, I disagree with your assertion that a car free environment is necessarily and by definition a better one. I have already stated that I think any comparison between the Circle and any public space in Europe is absurd for the many reasons I have also already stated in my first comment. So let’s compare two public spaces in Europe: Leicester Square in London is a beautiful, entertaining pedestrian area, but I, personally, prefer Piccadilly Circus in terms of a truly “urban” experience. The sense of hustle and bustle, the noise and congestion, the very real possibility of being struck by on-coming traffic all combine to let you know you are in The City! Anything can happen here! The danger and inconvenience are part of the thrill and excitement that let you know you this is a big, busy, important place. They force you to pay attention in a way that is absent in more controlled environments. Having said that, I would still not argue that Piccadilly Circus is “better” than Leicester Square but that they are different, that they offer inherently different experiences, and I enjoy the former more. Likewise, you should feel free to assert that you hold the opposite opinion, and believe Leicester Square more enjoyable. But to say that Leicester Square is qualitatively better because it lacks cars, is to ascribe the status of fact to what is ultimately an opinion.

    As for comparisons with Fountain Square in Cincinnati I can’t say much having only seen it on Google Maps after your mentioning it, but I will pose a question: Would it be improved if traffic were eliminated on Vine St between 4th & 6th and on 5th between Race & Walnut?

  • Nick, I will answer your comments backwards.

    No, I do not think eliminating traffic on Vine Street or 5th would help the space. That is a different animal as those streets are intrinsically connected to the rest of the grid.

    Of everything you said, I will say that I like what you said about spaces not being better than the other, just having different functions. Ok, I can get on board with that notion. With that said, I continue to believe that Monument Circle would be a better experience as a pedestrian only pubic space. As it stands today, the Circle is not ready. But the amazing thing about a ‘place’ is that people will go to it because of what it is. You see this in piazza after piazza in Italy. Motorist spontaneity does not exist in piazzas but human spontaneity does. The Hilbert Theatre will always be on the Circle so people will always go there (and I have talked to the president of the symphony and he fully supports the idea of pedestrianizing the Circle). People won’t stop going because they now have to walk a bit further. If you can get institutions and other uses that are uniquely Indy then people will go because it is an experience.

    anhe – I agree with your point that closing off the entire Circle creates a large space, so maybe just pedestrianize the south side of the Circle. This mitigates the auto connectivity issue. Perhaps we need to also look at rehabbing our alleys and maybe even turning some of them back to full service streets. IMO, this also ought to be a goal. The more street connections the better for pedestrian experiences but also use diversity generation.

  • The Circle perhaps can be closed for big activites like the Super Bowl, however that is an inconvenience for workers on the Circle.
    We used to live in Indy and the Circle is a beautiful spot. Christmas is especially beautiful there.

    Buses used to use the Circle for people to make changes and now they don’t. That wasn’t ever a problem. That goes back many years. Like someone said, how long has it been since there was an accident on the Circle.

    Many times I’ve seen them close it so you can’t go around and around but to close it any more than that is unnecessary.

    Glad I’m not there for Super Bowl. It sounds like that will be a pain for all who work downtown. Parking at a premium ——- yikes!

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