Now that Somera Road Inc. of New York City has selected a construction firm for the renovation of Allentown’s Grand Plaza on Hamilton Street, the developer is eyeing a June completion.
Basel Bataineh, vice president of Somera Road said the company chose Serfass Construction, a local firm to perform the construction and renovation work for the project, which includes creating an eight-vendor food hall within the retail space and renovating the interior floors for Class-A office space.
The project got a “thumbs up” from the Allentown Neighborhood Improvement Zone Development Authority’s project review committee on Thursday, which is step one in the process, Bataineh said. That committee will make a recommendation to the full board, he added.
The next step is for Somera to submit additional application information to the ANIZDA board. In addition, Somera will borrow $17.5 million through ANIZDA to help fund the project.
Most of the money will go toward the renovation and interior fit-outs for office spaces tenants will lease and a smaller portion will go toward renovations to the existing plaza and lobby, he said.
“The objective is to finish before the Blues Brews and Barbecue Festival,” Bataineh said.
The outdoor festival, scheduled for June 13, attracts thousands to the downtown.
“The last thing we want is a large construction site during the festival,” Bataineh said. “We’d like to be completely finished before the date of the festival.”
Aside from Serfass, Somera is working with ESa, an architectural firm based in Nashville, and Hawkins Partners Inc., a landscape architect also based in Nashville.
“They’ve worked on really high profile landscape projects,” Bataineh said. “They are going to redesign the exterior plaza.”
The building has about 240,000 square feet available. The building was in foreclosure when Somera bought it last April.
“We’ve had a lot of leasing interest in the market, both from tenants in the area and tenants outside the area,” Bataineh said.
The company invests in and redevelops properties around the country that have either been abandoned or blighted and puts them back to active reuse, he said.
“We love to take a building that was once a symbol of hope that has fallen on some tough times over the past few years and breathe some life into it and add some jobs,” Bataineh said.
Built in 2002, the building, formerly known as PPL Plaza, is in the Neighborhood Improvement Zone, a tax incentive that spurred more than $1 billion in construction and renovation in downtown Allentown.
Matthias Fenstermacher, vice president of Serfass Construction of North Whitehall Township, said the firm hopes to break ground and start construction in March.
“The current drawings call for demolition of the entire plaza and converting that back into green space, a flexible space,” Fenstermacher said.
The firm will also work on renovations to the entrance and interior fit-outs as they come up, he said.
Serfass will have about 20 to 30 employees working on the construction at any given time, he said.
In 2018, Serfass Construction completed another downtown Allentown project, 520 Lofts, a six-story building on Hamilton Street that included 68 upscale apartments.
A Toronto -based cannabis company is looking to open a medical marijuana dispensary in Phillipsburg, New Jersey, near the border with Easton this spring.
In a news release, TerrAscend Corp., a global cannabis company licensed for sales in Canada, the U.S., and the European Union, said the New Jersey Department of Health issued a permit to cultivate medical marijuana. TerrAscend NJ is the second entity to receive its cultivation permit among the six applicants chosen by the department in December 2018.
Cultivation operations will begin at its facility in Boonton Township in northern New Jersey.
After securing additional processing and dispensing approvals, the full permit will allow TerrAscend NJ to operate a production facility and up to three Alternative Treatment Centers or dispensaries, in northern New Jersey.
According to the state officials, more than 66,000 patients have gained access to the state’s medical marijuana program as of January.
The company plans to open the Phillipsburg dispensary under the retail banner The Apothecarium in the second quarter. It will be the state’s first in Warren County and the first East Coast location of The Apothecarium.
The dispensary will open at 55 S. Main St. in the vacant Phillipsburg Trust Co. building.
“The medical marijuana dispensary has been approved before my tenure as mayor began,” said Todd Tersigni, Phillipsburg mayor. “I don’t believe my personal feelings about the project are relevant as it is now a fully approved project.”
A December housing market report from the Greater Lehigh Valley Realtors showed the Lehigh Valley hitting a record low for month’s supply of inventory.
With not enough new construction and sellers to meet demand, total sales are lower than what they normally would be in a more balanced market, the report said.
In December, the month’s supply of inventory for Lehigh and Northampton counties came in at 1.8 months, the lowest on record since the GLVR began tracking statistical housing data in 1996, which shows the balance in the market is leaning more heavily toward a seller’s market.
In 2019, home prices were up again in most markets, however, with low mortgage rates and unemployment and continued wage growth, homebuyer activity should remain healthy into 2020, according to the report.
Mortgage rates ended the year close to three quarters of a% lower than a year ago, helping to improve affordability and offset rising home prices.
In addition, new construction has been rising in 2019 and should continue into 2020, but experts noted that it’s unknown whether existing homeowners will be enticed to see by higher home prices.
In December 2019, new listings decreased 7.3% to 422, compared to 455 in December 2018. Pending sales were down 4.3% to 449, compared to 469. Closed sales increased 10.2% to 626, compared to 568.
In addition, inventory levels shrank to 25.4% to 1,284 units, compared to 1,722.
Prices continued to rise and the median sales price increased 5.3% to $200,000, compared to $190,000.
The figure for days on the market stayed flat at 42 days.
Another good sign for sellers was the fact that the%age of list price received increased 0.4% to 97.8%, compared to 97.4%.
Overall, the Lehigh Valley housing market appears to be in a positive place, largely because of low unemployment and interest rates, according to Carl Billera, GLVR president.
“There’s more closed sales, the median sale price is up, we feel like that’s going to go up even more,” Billera said.
With inventory down 25%, Billera said there needs to be more supply in the market but builders aren’t building them fast enough.
One significant factor in determining how the first quarter of 2020 will play out is to see how many owners will decide to sell and that’s something the GLVR group will be monitoring, he said.
Even with the low inventory and rising prices, the combined factors of low unemployment and low interest rates could create a housing market in the early part of 2020 that’s similar to where it’s been over the past year.
“I think we are in a monitoring mode right now,” Billera said. “But we are in the same playing field, same environment. It remains to be seen whether existing homeowners will be enticed to sell by higher home prices, which could bring the overall housing market into greater balance.”
City Center Allentown, the real estate developer involved in efforts to revitalize downtown, plans to build two office buildings on two sites in the 900 block of Hamilton Street.
“We’ve been looking at focusing upon the western part of Hamilton Street,” said Rob DiLorenzo, project manager for City Center Allentown. “Those two sites we see as an opportunity for future office development.”
The buildings would be 100,000 square feet each and stand six to seven stories high, he said.
The company wants a smaller footprint for the buildings, with floor plates at about 13,000 square feet, DiLorenzo said.
Potentially, multiple tenants would occupy each building and one tenant, such as a professional services firm, could take an entire floor, he said.
The property at 940 Hamilton St. is a clear site while the property at 950-956 Hamilton includes three buildings that have been vacant for the last five years. The company received city approval on Monday to demolish those buildings.
Demolition is scheduled for spring with construction next year, DiLorenzo said.
The project has no specific name yet, but DiLorenzo estimated the cost could be $28 million per building.
The sites are in the Neighborhood Improvement Zone, a tax incentive that has helped rejuvenate the city by spurring more than $1 billion in new construction and renovation in downtown Allentown.
“We see Hamilton Street as being our premier destination for organizations to be located in the Lehigh Valley,” DiLorenzo said. “When we look at office development, it’s really in most cases situated on Hamilton Street.”
A fourth quarter report on the industrial real estate market for the Interstate-78/81 corridor shows supply outpacing demand overall during 2019, according to the real estate firm CBRE.
However, for the Lehigh Valley and Berks County, the market had a solid year and supply and demand was largely in balance in 2018, said Vincent Ranalli, senior vice president of CBRE in Radnor.
In Lehigh Valley and Berks, the market saw 6.3 million square feet of new space delivered, with 5.6 million square feet absorbed.
The vacancy rate for the entire I-78 corridor, including Lehigh Valley, Central Pennsylvania and Northeastern Pennsylvania ticked up to 7.2 percent, Ranalli said.
“This was largely attributable to a large amount of speculative space delivered in Northeastern Pa., coupled with retailers like Sears who vacated three buildings in the Wilkes-Barre area,” Ranalli said. “When I look at it, I say Lehigh Valley and Berks County had a pretty good year. We need more of these buildings to be absorbed in Northeastern Pa. A lot of these developers are waiting to see whether these buildings are going to be absorbed before they decide to pull the trigger.”
According to the report, developers are reacting to a somewhat protracted demand environment and slowing the pace of new construction starts with nearly half as much supply starting construction this year compared to last.
Rents for class-A space in the Lehigh Valley rose 5 percent over last quarter and tenant activity, which includes building tours and leases signed, was up 17 percent over last quarter, he said.
Companies signed several large leases in Q4 and a few more will carry over into Q1, which should be very strong, Ranalli said.
“For Lehigh Valley and Berks County, tenant activity is strong,” Ranalli said.
This includes tenants in building sizes that range from 100,000 square feet to 1 million square feet.
“We are also seeing some restraint from developers,” Ranalli said.
As an example, for two quarters in a row, no one broke ground on a million-square-foot building, he said.
“Developers are being a little restrained,” Ranalli said. “There were a couple of deals that happened last year that were big and some happening now in the process of being signed.”
Every indicator points to a positive first quarter for the industrial market, he added.
Two areas showing strong interest from companies include the BridgePoint 78 industrial park under construction in Phillipsburg, New Jersey and two distribution properties under construction near I-78’s Exit 67 in Bethlehem.
Across all counties in the corridor, the report showed a total of 12.4 million square feet of industrial properties under construction in the fourth quarter, a decrease from Q4 2018, which had 16.8 million square feet.
The report showed average asking warehouse rents generally went unchanged during 2019, while contract rents showed the same trend. However, there were exceptions. The Lehigh Valley market showed modest rent appreciation for newer product with leases signing higher than the $6 per square foot mark in most instances.
With the purchase of the shuttered Easton Iron & Metal Co. in Easton finalized, the Easton Redevelopment Authority is focusing attention on what to do with the 15-acre property it bought on Bushkill Drive.
The first step will be establishing an environmental cleanup plan for the site, said John Kingsley, director of community and economic development for Easton. The cleanup is expected to continue through 2020 as the city works on a development strategy.
“There are several potential uses for the site, none of them have been decided upon,” Kingsley said. “We fully expect this to be an important development project for the Bushkill corridor. A number of possibilities are being discussed.”
The site is in close proximity to the Karl Stirner Arts Trail. Potential uses could include an arts park with integration to the trail and an environmental education component.
Easton Iron & Metal vacated the site in 2015 before the death of owner Jacob Stein in 2016, according to a news release. Sarah Finney-Miller of NAI Summit represented the seller, Stein Revocable Living Trust, in the sale of the property, covering more than 15 acres along Bushkill Drive.
Finney-Miller facilitated a direct sale with the Easton Redevelopment Authority to buy the three-parcel site for $700,000.
The project could help connect Easton’s West Ward and College Hill neighborhoods, particularly with the arts trail in close proximity.
Venture X, a membership-based co-working space, plans to open its first location in Pennsylvania in South Bethlehem this March.
Quadratus Construction is building out the space inside the Gateway at Greenway Park building, said Nancy Black, community director of Venture X.
Venture X is a co-working franchise that began in Naples, Florida and spread to other states, including New York, Boston, California and Texas.
Black said Venture X will occupy 13,000 square feet on the first floor and part of the second floor. She plans to have the space mostly finished by February in time for a mid-March opening. Spillman Farmer Architects of Bethlehem is the designer.
“It’s a very high-end co-working shared space,” Black said. “The building is very new and will fit the culture of Venture X. It’s also a central location in the valley.”
The office space Venture X is renting offers companies and individuals shared desks and a number of private offices, she said.
Black said she has been involved in real estate in New York City for the past six and half years and wanted to offer quality co-working office space that would include networking events.
She said she already has a few small companies and individuals interested in the space.
Terry Wallace, an executive who led a global human resources Fortune 100 company and a startup sees a strong demand for co-working space in the Lehigh Valley.
“I see an absolute need here in the Lehigh Valley,” Wallace said. “The industry is just blowing up as a service option.”
Wallace is the CEO of Alynus Inc., a company focused on business and consulting and an investor in Venture X Lehigh Valley. He’s lived in the Lehigh Valley for about 15 years and has worked in New York City all those years and felt it was time to simplify his life.
He wanted to find a solution to the challenging commutes many workers face who live in the valley but work in New York City or Philadelphia.
“The knowledge-based workforce that anchor between where you live and the impact on your work is gone,” Wallace said. “The only reason that people have to travel is because their management acumen insist they be seen. I know how difficult that type of career can be for people.”
Wallace said he knows many executives who have to travel deep into New York, New Jersey and Philadelphia for their careers because that’s how their companies work.
However, he plans to change that with Venture X.
“Where you live and where you work can be one and the same,” Wallace said. “I want us to be an offering to businesses and individuals so that no matter where you live you are about 10 minutes from one of our locations.”
He plans to invest in more potential sites in Easton and Allentown and chose Bethlehem because he views the South Side as being on a trajectory of growth.
Wallace said the leases will be quarterly and he will offer three levels of membership with different pricing. Shared desks will be $200 per month, dedicated desks will be $400 and private office suites start at $800. He will also offer community memberships, which provide access to the common space but he does not have a rental cost determined yet.
Tenants who buy co-working space will have access to other amenities on-site, including payroll services, notary services, a café, and a conference room.
The site is at 306 S. New St. and attached to a parking garage.
The site once served as a bowling alley and a car dealership in downtown Easton, now it’s being transformed into new office space.
With Hearst Magazines planning to move in this summer, officials hope the property across from the Easton Intermodal Center and City Hall on South Third Street, will be an example of what’s now known as an innovative adaptive reuse.
Hearst will bring about 180 employees to the space, many of whom are temporarily in offices in Center Valley, said Allison Keane, spokesperson for Hearst Magazines, in a statement.
Hearst is renting more than 35,000 square feet, she said.
Hearst, which bought Rodale in 2018, is a major magazine publisher headquartered in New York City.
“We chose Easton as the home for our Enthusiast Group — Runner’s World, Bicycling and Popular Mechanics — because it has a thriving, diverse downtown scene with easy and safe access to trails, paths, and outdoor adventures,” said Troy Young, president of Hearst Magazines, in a statement.
Once complete, the two-story structure, called Heritage Riverview, will offer views of the confluence of the Delaware and Lehigh rivers, in addition to a portion of the Delaware and Lehigh trail.
On a tour of the construction site Wednesday, Nikolas Naidu, owner of Mohawk Contracting & Development of Upper Macungie Township, said the building will include a below-ground parking lot, have about 22,000 square feet per floor, and offer 44,000 square feet of office space.
Workers are installing concrete slabs for the garage area and recently completed masonry on the staircase and elevator shaft.
“Right now, we are starting to prepare for steel to start going up the middle of this month,” Naidu said.
The side facing Third Street will have a multiple story glass wall, while the second story will have extensive windows to capitalize on the views and daylight, Naidu said. The firm also plans to build a courtyard between the new building and the existing Monarch Furniture retailer next door.
An older building in an urban area, the construction process for Heritage Riverview has not been without challenges.
“It’s a historic building, [there’s] tight logistics,” Naidu said. “There were quite a few stone foundations that we had to deal with, quite a bit of inadequate foundations for today’s standards. We had to keep the perimeter walls for historic requirements.”
The firm also had minimal requirements for fabricating new steel tying into the existing structure, he added.
As is often the case with historic buildings, workers come across new discoveries and encounter considerable difficulties.
“There were places where you would assume there were columns, and then there were none,” Naidu said. “We had to take off the existing roof, which was in extreme disrepair. We had to use extreme care. We had to bring in a lot of third-party safety groups.”
The other challenge will come when it’s time to erect the steel so close to the existing buildings, he added.
Still, the firm expects to finish construction by June, in time for the anchor tenant’s move.
Mohawk Contracting will also complete the interior fit-out for the project.
In December, the U.S. Treasury Department and the IRS issued final regulations implementing the federal Qualified Opportunity Zones Tax Incentive. Now, many developers and investors are waiting to see how these regulations will help them with projects that will revitalize distressed areas.
Created by the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, these zones offer capital gains tax relief for investments in economically distressed regions.
The program gives investors breaks on federal capital gains taxes in exchange for investments that support small businesses and housing projects in low-income areas. Investors can avoid federal taxable capital gains on investments in those areas if they retain ownership of a project for at least a decade.
These Opportunity Zones include areas in Allentown, Bethlehem, Easton, Reading, West Reading, Stroudsburg, Pottstown, Tamaqua, and Phillipsburg, New Jersey.
Though Gov. Wolf identified the Opportunity Zones in 2018, since that time there has not been a large-scale rush of investments to capitalize on the program. It’s questionable whether the Opportunity Zone program will actually benefit distressed areas.
“I think that the program is potentially very impactful, but I think it’s too early to tell,” said Steve Bamford, executive director of the Allentown Neighborhood Improvement Zone Development Authority. “The final regs were anticipated by investors so there’s a real good chance that a lot of capital sat on the sidelines because of the uncertainty until the final regs were issued,” he said.
The final rules should provide clarity for opportunity funds and their eligible subsidiaries in determining qualification and levels of new investment in Opportunity Zones. They also provide guidance regarding the types of gains that qualify for Opportunity Zone investments, as well as gains that investors could exclude from tax after a 10-year holding period.
To qualify for the tax incentives, investors must invest in a qualified opportunity fund, a private-sector investment vehicle that puts at least 90 percent of its capital in Opportunity Zones. The model will allow investors to pool their resources, increasing the scale of resources going to underserved areas.
Charles Jefferson, principal at Jefferson-Werner LLC, a real estate development company in Allentown, said he has not had the opportunity to review the new regulations. However, he said the Opportunity Zone program has potential to revitalize distressed communities. Jefferson, through PNC Bank, invested $4 million in Brinker Lofts in South Bethlehem, the first Opportunity Zone project in Pennsylvania.
Jefferson completed that project this year, which involved renovating a former cold storage building on Adams Street between Third and Fourth streets into a residential project with 30 market-rate apartments with a courtyard and a retail space.
He also has plans for Bethlehem’s former Boyd Theatre on Bethlehem’s north side. He plans to select an architectural firm shortly that would transform the long dormant property into a $22 million apartment project with new retail space. That project too would benefit from funding through the Opportunity Zone program.
Bamford said he believes more capital will flow into qualified Opportunity Zone funds.
Investors can capture other tax incentives, such as the City Revitalization and Improvement Zone incentive in Bethlehem and the Neighborhood Improvement Zone benefit in Allentown in addition to tax benefits from Opportunity Zones in these areas.
Allentown’s NIZ has helped rejuvenate the city by spurring more than $1 billion in new construction and renovation in downtown Allentown.
A community like Allentown has been able to demonstrate a successful track record in attracting investment and communities like that will continue to be attractive to investors, Bamford said.
“It’s possible that you could have real estate development projects that could utilize the NIZ and Opportunity Zones,” Bamford said.
The NIZ is not particularly useful for residential development projects but the Opportunity Zone program is, so the two incentives complement each other, he said.
Bamford said he has researched and read about Opportunity Zone projects in other areas of the nation and quite a few have been residential ones.
“Often, I am reading about activity in larger communities,” Bamford said. “If we do see more capital flowing into the qualified opportunity funds, you would think they would look at other markets like the Lehigh Valley.”
Benefit as an add-on
Jeff Brown, owner and operator of Bell Hall restaurant in Allentown is also founder and principal of Charles Street Capital, a real estate developer and advisory firm. He said he has looked at both the NIZ and Opportunity Zone programs and noted how the NIZ can change the fundamentals of a project.
Meanwhile, the Opportunity Zone program can make it easier to improve the return on equity, Brown said.
With an Opportunity Zone program, an investor has to have a project in mind, he added.
“I haven’t heard of any communities being benefited by it,” Brown said. “Those projects have to work on their own.”
Brown said he is not planning to invest in any Opportunity Zone projects right now. “I have looked at projects in South Bethlehem but we are not doing any right now,” Brown said.
Still, he thinks South Bethlehem could be good for Opportunity Zone investments.
“You’ve got to have a project all put together,” he said. “The Opportunity Zone is one way you get potential equity capital that you couldn’t get otherwise. They certainly can’t hurt, but someone has to be a project champion and put that together or a municipality has to have some capital improvement project in mind.”
However, he believes that anyone with a capital gain has an interest in Opportunity Zone projects.
“It’s not going to turn a loser into a winner, it will just add a little bit of gravy,” Brown said.
Jefferson said he remembers how investors sat on the sidelines when the government introduced another tax incentive program 20 years ago, the New Markets Tax Credit Program, which also was an incentive for investment in low-income communities.
The educational process for these incentives, including the Opportunity Zone program, involves getting the attorneys, consultants and accountants up to speed, which takes time, Jefferson said.
Though the federal government introduced the Opportunity Zone program two years ago, investors did not have clarity until the release of the new regulations in December, he added.
“You can’t judge success or failure in the first two years, given that fact,” Jefferson said.
There’s no question that the business of rental real estate is in the distressed areas that the Opportunity Zones include, he added.
“Everybody sits on the sidelines waiting,” Jefferson said. “Investors are notoriously cautious. They are going to learn how to structure the deal.”
Douglas Frederick has been in the real estate business for 38 yrs. His father started the company in 1969 and he purchased it from him in 2006. His personal involvement over the last 38 years has included managing, coaching, training but he still enjoys working directly with customers.
A significant part of the business has been appraisal work. The Frederick Group has had a large appraisal department for over 30 yrs.
LVB: What attracted you to the real estate industry?
Frederick: I’ve found my experience in working with people as a natural contributor for success in real estate. In my youth I held various jobs in sales, restaurants and construction. I spent some early career days flying airplanes but everything involved working with people and serving a need so I found real estate to be a comfortable fit helping people solve their needs.
I really enjoy the feeling of accomplishment with getting all transactions to closing.
LVB: What are the particular skills a residential real estate agent needs as compared to a commercial real estate agent?
Frederick: Actually, I think the skills of a residential agent and a commercial real estate agent are very similar. The ability to work with people, problem solve, good communication and follow up apply to both focuses of the business. Prospecting, maintaining and servicing clientele and working to fulfill your clients’ needs are all closely related as well. Some of the practices of marketing, showing properties, information sharing can differ a bit, but no more than real estate practices can be different from one area to another. I find that people who enjoy and have experience working with people tend to relate to the real estate business the best in both residential and commercial focuses.
LVB: What were the highs and lows of the residential real estate market in 2019?
Frederick: The year of 2019 has primarily been a high as the last handful of years has been with few exceptions. The new construction business has gone through a tough recovery from the recession and increasing municipal controls, but has great consumer demand and is trending upward. The highest price ranges of homes have had some challenges in recovery from recession as well but have consistently been improving.
Some of the changes in the real estate business are that we’ve realized that as the largest group of buyers, Millennials are entering the marketplace in significant numbers. They tend to desire homes somewhat different then the Baby Boomer homes that are the largest group of sellers. We have many well-funded companies and venture capital sources trying to get into the real estate business with varying degrees of success but the industry tends to demand relationship based service as a cornerstone of our past present and future. Of course technology continues to develop more efficiencies of how we provide our service.
LVB: What kind of year do you think 2020 will be for residential real estate?
Frederick: It appears 2020 will be more of the same. Continued strength from the economy, availability of low cost mortgages, ever-growing demand of consumers that want to own homes and changing needs of people to find homes to best fit their lifestyles. There is no indication that it won’t continue to be a seller’s market but maybe with a slight trend toward balanced with a modest increase in pricing. We will continue to stay at the cutting edge of how we deliver our services and maintain relationships to assure we grow our market share.
Now that the owner of a major Lehigh Valley auto dealership bought a nearly two-acre site in Lower Macungie Township at a sheriff’s sale last week, he’s eyeing the land for potential expansion.
Gregg Ciocca, CEO of Ciocca Dealerships of Quakertown, said he bought the former Charcoal Drive-In and commuter parking lot for $1.16 million but is not certain what he will do with it.
“I don’t have exact plans,” Ciocca said. “I thought it was an iconic spot, it had great visibility.”
Ciocca said he was monitoring the spot and decided to buy it when the property went up for auction.
Bieber Transportation, which went out of business earlier this year, had been running buses out of the vacant drive-in property on Hamilton Boulevard near Interstate 78.
Ciocca said while he doesn’t have exact plans for it, he thought it would be a great spot for future expansion, considering its proximity to the company’s Subaru and Audi dealerships.
Ciocca said his company is building its 21st dealership, which is a 150,000-square-foot-dealership in Philadelphia. The company has about 1,300 employees.
He said he does not know if the former Charcoal Drive-In site will become another dealership and he has not submitted any plans to the township.
“The Charcoal-Inn just made great sense for future expansion, I just thought it was valuable,” Ciocca said. “We see the Lehigh Valley as a huge target market for us. We want to continue to expand up in that market.”
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