An Upstart New York Architect Dreams Up a Swimming Pool in the East River
All images courtesy pluspool.org and Dynamic Theories
This was not, Dong-Ping Wong insisted for the millionth time, a prank phone call. No, please don't hang up. He just wanted to talk about how to clean pool water.
But the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene official on the other end of the line still wasn't entirely convinced. No, she hadn't read Wong's email, but she didn't need to; she'd spent the past 45 minutes listening to this man, who claimed to be an architect, talk about building a pool in the East River. And filling it with . . . river water?
"Does your mother know what you're doing?" the woman asked him. Wong was used to this.
"OK," he said, "let's assume I'm a crazy person. Just give me one last thing. Indulge a crazy person. Have you seen the video I sent you?"
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He told her he'd wait.
She pressed play. Phone to his ear, Wong could hear his own voice in the background: "We're here because we want to build a floating pool."
"You do look crazy," she said finally. And, at least in terms of the video, maybe he did: disheveled black hair, tie-dye-spattered T-shirt, round grandfather glasses. Beside him on a couch, staring into the camera, were two similarly scruffy men, also wearing T-shirts. All three were hunched toward the camera, elbows on their knees. This was a business pitch?
Wong said nothing. A minute went by.
"Oh," the woman said.
Another minute. Wong heard her clear her throat as the video faded out.
"You know, I'm a bit of an artist myself," she said. "I understand when people try to do creative things.
"You do look crazy," she added. And then she told him what he needed to know.
The woman from the health department was more right than Wong let on. From the beginning, he'd known the floating pool idea was crazy.
Back in the winter of 2010, Wong had found himself thinking about the two very different kinds of summers he had known in his life. Born to Chinese immigrant parents in San Diego, he'd spent the summers of his childhood surfing the Pacific. He was in the water more than he was out of it. Then there were the summers in New York, where he moved in 2003 for an architecture graduate program at Columbia University. His adopted home, like his first one, was on the water, but in the six sticky, fetid city summers he'd lived here, Wong, now 34, had never so much as dipped a toe in either of New York's rivers. Neither, come to think of it, had anyone else he knew.
Not that he particularly wanted to; the brown, murky depths of the rivers around the city were a far cry from the inviting blue of the Pacific. But what if there were a way to make it possible to swim those waterways? What if he could design a giant pool and just, like, drop it in the middle of the river?
Wong, who'd founded his architecture firm, Family (he was originally the only employee; there are now two), at the height of the recession, was enjoying a newfound professional freedom after years of working for other people. Presenting himself as a freelance alternative to more established architecture firms, he was, for the first time, able to choose only the projects that allowed him to indulge his creativity, and he was reveling in it. Inspired by his reverie, he picked up his pencil and began scribbling.
And thus, + POOL was unceremoniously born.
"It seemed kind of like a funny idea that you don't really take seriously," Wong says today. Slender and bespectacled, he looks every bit the hipster, but he lacks the trademark irony. He's smiling, sincere, straightforward. He makes earnest eye contact.
"We need a better origin story," he adds, grinning.
Maybe. But where the project comes from is less important than where it's headed. Four years after that inaugural doodle, Wong and his two partners, Archie Coates and Jeff Franklin, both 30, are perhaps only a few summers away from getting that funny idea into the water — and, they hope, redefining the relationship between 8 million New Yorkers and the rivers that surround them.
The idea is much more, and much more complicated, than a pool dropped in a river. For all intents and purposes, this pool is the river.
Conceptually, the notion is so simple that it seems almost elementary: The + POOL will be "like a giant strainer," Wong explains, with walls built out of several layers of varying permeability: a loose, net-like material to catch larger chunks of garbage and debris, all the way down to one with holes fine enough to let water in while keeping bacteria out.
The floating structure is shaped like a giant plus sign, with each axis forming a separate, Olympic-size pool. The water comes straight from the source (either the Hudson or the East River, depending on the site the team chooses); with the help of the numerous pumps and fans affixed to its sides, the pool will pull water through layer after layer of geotextiles, porous fabrics that filter and transform it from the toxic brown water New Yorkers see from their windows into something more akin to what comes out of their taps. All told, the pool will clean more than a half-million gallons each day, drawing water from the river into the pool and recirculating it into the river.
The specifics are still up in the air, says Nancy Choi, a senior engineer at Arup, an international engineering firm that was the team's first partner on the project. Choi expects the final pool to have two or three different types of geotextiles in its walls.
"Getting all of the obvious floatables out of the water" — the garbage, the animals — is the first step, she says, and is something that can be accomplished with a more porous material.
Chemicals and bacteria, on the other hand, will require something much tighter. "A coffee filter is a good way of thinking about the fabrics," Choi explains. "It keeps the coffee out, but it allows the water to pass through."
The challenge, says Columbia University professor and + POOL advisor Wade McGillis, is finding a sweet spot that keeps the undesirable things out while permitting the water to steadily flow in: "It's a trade-off between how fine the filter is for particle and pathogen removal, and having something that can actually seep."
The team is adamant that the pool must do its work without the help of chlorine.
"It sort of defeats the whole purpose for us, of swimming in natural water," Wong says. "And we don't want to introduce all these chemicals to the river."
It's a tall order to spin appealing summer fun out of a river that's known more as a punch line ("Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes") than a source of recreation. It's an even taller order when it must be done without the help of the chemical cleaner used almost universally in conventional swimming pools.
And it's not just the water that needs to be reckoned with. People are dirty, too. Especially in a New York summer, when bathers will enter the pool coated in sweat and rank city air.
The members of the + POOL team have thrown their faith behind their filtration system. The walls of their West Village workspace are covered with to-do lists, diagrams of materials, and plans for the final, four-armed structure: each axis measuring 50 meters end to end, with areas for lap-swimming, lounging, sports, and children. For the sake of not overexerting the filters, Wong says, the pool will stay shallow throughout, likely about five feet deep, with a shallower kids' section. In the drawings, a floating walkway connects the shore to the pool, which will extend anywhere from 100 to 300 feet into the river, depending on the site.
Also scattered throughout the office are photos from summer 2011, when the team conducted its first filtration test at Brooklyn Bridge Park, pumping water from the river into and back out of a giant tank onshore. That was the first step toward actually building the pool. The second came in April, when Wong, Coates, and Franklin launched Float Lab, a small floating dock off Hudson River Parks.
Thirty feet long by 10 feet wide, with a garish blue plywood top supported by a plastic bottom, it's designed to look like any other floating dock but for the three squares cut into its middle. Those contain aluminum frames, each five feet deep, which in turn contain the heart of the project: three tubs, each created from some combination of different filter materials of increasingly fine mesh.
Just getting the Float Lab into the water required permits from the Army Corps of Engineers and the New York Department of State. The Hudson River Park Trust, the city-state partnership that operates the five miles of parkland, had to grant access to the pier. Two naval architects pitched in as well, and secured permission to assemble the rig at the Liberty Landing Marina in New Jersey. River Project, a Manhattan–based environmental group, is providing lab facilities. The partners check in with a handful of city agencies, including the health and parks departments, to keep them up to date.
Throughout the summer, the team will evaluate the water in each tub for everything from temperature and pH to algae and bacteria content, looking at which combinations of filters create the highest water quality across the board. They'll also chart river currents, rainfall, and anything else that affects the Hudson's behavior. In late summer, Wong says, they'll tow Float Lab around the tip of Manhattan to the East River and restart the process, working into the fall.
For the time being, it's a game of wait-and-see. The success of Float Lab's filters will determine the success of + POOL.
In the months that followed his + POOL brainstorm, Wong — who, before founding Family, had worked on projects all over the world, from a museum in Norway to a women's center in Rwanda — kept returning to that fleeting daydream. The floating pool in the river. Something closer to home.
Finally, that summer, he called up an old colleague, Jeff Franklin, a partner in the design shop Playlab. The West Virginia native had worked with Wong at the New York architecture firm Rex before the two set up their own operations.
I have this kind of crazy idea, Wong said. Can we get coffee?
Wong met Franklin and the latter's Playlab partner, Archie Coates, at a coffee shop near his West Village office. He sat across the table from both of them: Franklin, slight and soft-spoken, with thick glasses and a wispy beard; Coates, all earnestness and loud laugh, with thick eyebrows on an otherwise young-looking face.
Wong dove in: Here's the idea, he said, pushing his drawings across the table.
He geared up for the pitch he'd prepared, but he didn't need it. Franklin and Coates said they were game. The two had built Playlab in 2005 out of an attraction to social-good endeavors coupled with a healthy appreciation for the weird. The biggest project they'd worked on to date, Pie Lab, is a community-run bakery in Greensboro, Alabama, where customers pay for slices with brainstorm sessions about design projects that could improve the town. A river-cleaning public pool? Right up their alley.
But for all three partners, + POOL's biggest draw is the change they hope it represents.
"It's about touching and feeling the water, making people less scared of the water, taking action to actually make it a part of the city," Wong says.
"The rivers are like the sixth borough," he adds. "I'm living closer to a body of water than I ever have before, but no one can appreciate it."
Lacking investors, blueprints, and a business plan, Wong, Coates, and Franklin built a website to launch their idea into the world. Then they waited.
A few months passed, and then they received a call from Craig Covil, a principal at Arup. He'd seen the site and liked the idea. His company, he said, was willing undertake the research to prove + POOL was a feasible undertaking.
"My gut feeling was yes, it could be feasible," Covil says now. "It was one of those things where we had to be involved; as engineers, we like to have interesting problems to solve. This was not only an interesting problem but a great opportunity to provide something that's good for the community."
In 2011, armed with Arup's report, Wong, Coates, and Franklin initiated a campaign on the crowdfunding website Kickstarter. Their video appeal was bare-bones: three guys on a couch, telling the camera, "We're here because we want to build a floating pool." They requested $25,000 for a round of water-quality testing. Within a few weeks, they'd raised nearly twice that.
The team thanked its Kickstarter investors with + POOL beer koozies. For the next round of fundraising, they decided to give contributors a literal piece of the project, promising to engrave backers' names onto the tiles that would line the pool. "+ POOL, Tile by Tile" promptly topped its goal of $250,000.
This is easy, they thought.
In 2012, they announced their first non-Kickstarter campaign, "Everybody + POOL," aiming to raise $1 million. The target was based more on symbolism than any financial calculation.
"We were like, 'Well, $1 million sounds like an even number,'" Coates says.
They kicked off the effort at Brooklyn Brewery, inviting past donors and friends to share beer, ice cream, Asian hot dogs, and excitement over what was to come.
The party turned out to be the high point of the fundraising campaign.
"I think we raised enough to cover the event," Wong says, pegging the total at "somewhere in the thousands of dollars range."
Says Coates: "We had one event, and past that event we had nothing to talk about. It was chicken and the egg. We needed money to go to the next stage of the project. We needed to pay people: scientists, engineers, people that knew more than we did. We had taken the project as far as we could take it."
Terrified of losing momentum, the team set about assembling a diverse cast of characters to carry them forward: a geochemist from Columbia University to train them in water-quality testing; two naval architects to collaborate with Arup on the blueprints; a fabrication company to help with the filters; new employees hired by Family and Playlab to help with + POOL. What began as a three-man idea became a sprawling operation, each arm with its own specialized pocket of knowledge.
"I can't even answer half the questions I get anymore," Coates says, "because it's somebody else's job."
Donations have sustained the team. "So far, everybody that's been on this project, we've paid. And all the materials, we've paid for," Wong says. "I think people have been incredibly generous to put in more hours than we pay them for, working at cost level; otherwise, there's no way we could afford to work with all these people."
Monitoring the nitty-gritty, the partners say, makes for grueling days of meetings, meetings, and more meetings. Coates estimates the trio has taken about 800 meetings since the project got off the ground: meetings with community boards, meetings with environmentalists, meetings with the creators of past civic projects — including their closest model, the High Line — meetings with lawyers (they're in the process of establishing nonprofit status). As their summer 2016 target nears, they will have meetings to determine how to construct the pool, how to get it into the water, how to include the city in ownership and maintenance.
Increasingly, the trio's actual day jobs are bleeding into the after-hours and weekends. But with an unfunded passion project eating up at least as much time as their income-generating activity, Coates says, "We work 200 percent as opposed to 100 percent."
Sleep is a precious commodity, free time even rarer. "We all have ladies who want to eat dinner together and have a normal life, and, 'We're building the world's first floating pool' doesn't cut it with them," Coates notes. "Which is fair."
The + POOL Dashboard allows the public to follow the project team's water-quality testing.
Name something that shouldn't be in a swimming pool and chances are it has turned up in one of New York City's waterways.
There are the big things, of course: the soda cans, plastic bags, and other trash swept in by rain or tossed away by careless beachgoers. And in the warmer months, bodies inevitably float to the surface, made buoyant as higher water temperatures accelerate decomposition.
But it's the little things that swimmers should be concerned about.
Over the years, the waters of the East and Hudson rivers have been tested multiple times, by environmental groups and chemistry classes, by watchdogs on the lookout for specific pollutants, and by people simply curious to see what turns up.
Here's some of what they've found:
Untreated sewage, most likely from the pipe up near 125th Street;
Motor oil and transmission fluid, washed from city streets and parking lots into storm drains;
Fertilizers and pesticides, swept off by sprinklers from lawn and parks;
Enough hormones and antibiotics to stock several drugstores;
Animal excrement (of course);
And, in a particularly unsavory discovery made by a team of microbiology researchers last summer, several strains of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, a finding that, all things considered, isn't entirely surprising, but one that whipped up a fair number of hysterical headlines nonetheless.
"Anything that can go down the toilet can end up in the river," says Chris Anderson, director of education at the River Project. "If it rains a certain amount — some say a quarter-inch, some say 44 millimeters — it's more than the water-treatment plants can handle."
And when the treatment plants are forced to shut off inflow, waste flows directly into the rivers.
As difficult as this may be to fathom, the rivers' water quality is actually improving. In 1965, New York passed the Pure Waters Bond Act, allocating $1 billion to sewage treatment. In 1972, the federal Clean Water Act cut down on the dumping of industrial waste. And in 1986, the North River Wastewater Treatment Plant opened west of the West Side Highway between 137th and 145th Streets, reducing bacteria levels dramatically.
Because there's no public beach along the Hudson's Manhattan shoreline, the city's health department doesn't test it with the same regularity as it does heavily trafficked waterfront areas like Coney Island and the Rockaways, both of which receive constantly updated ratings throughout the summer months. Those ratings, based on the count of enterococcus bacteria present in the water, determine whether the beaches are open for swimming, under advisory, or restricted for sunbathing only, with swimming and wading forbidden. (To be considered safe, a beach must have an average enterococcus count of fewer than 35 per 100 milliliters of water across a span of five samples within 30 days. Based on this same standard, Anderson says, the Hudson is actually safe for swimming, provided it hasn't rained in the past three days.)
But unlike individual swimmers, + POOL won't have the luxury of choice. Once it's in the water, it will stay in the water.
Nothing gets Archie Coates quite so giddy as talking about what lurks in the water. It's the most unsavory part of the project — with so much emphasis on filters, what's being filtered out is typically left unsaid — but his voice gives him away as he ticks off what he and his partners are testing for. "Salinity, turbidity — but what we're mostly testing for is the fecal," he says.
He grins. "That's shit," he says.
But during the sweltering summer months of 2011, Jeff Franklin was not amused. He wasn't thinking about the Clean Water Act, or health department ratings, or rainfall.
He was thinking about how hot he was. And he was thinking about shit.
The team's tank at Brooklyn Bridge Park, the land-based precursor to Float Lab, was up and running, and it was as much a pain as a milestone.
The routine had been established from the beginning: Whoever was on duty for the day would get to the park and turn on the pumps that hauled water from the East River into the tank, where it would move through four separate chambers, each separated by a layer of the tightest filter, the one meant to stop bacteria. There was down time for the hour it took to fill the tank completely, but from then on, the day got busy.
Two piers away from the tank, Franklin emptied his backpack in the team's makeshift lab, a small container office they'd rented for the six weeks of testing. Inside were five Deer Park water bottles labeled with masking tape, one for each chamber, plus one for the river. He started with the most labor-intensive task: the test for fecal coliform, a type of bacteria found in human and animal feces. On its own, fecal coliform isn't really harmful if consumed. Known as an "indicator bacteria," it's a warning sign that other, more dangerous pathogens are likely lurking nearby.
Slowly, carefully, Franklin poured a small amount from each bottle onto five baking sheets, each studded with tiny indentations filled with a chemical solution. He slid each into the oven and turned it on, wincing as the heat seeped into the already stifling air. When he took the sheets out in a few hours, he would shine a black light over the indents; in those that contained fecal coliform, the bacteria would react with the solution inside, causing it to glow.
For now, though, he had 14 other tests to run, three times each, just to be safe.
The easy ones he got through quickly, sticking a thermometer into one container, dropping a pH strip into another.
Then came the tests that reminded him how much he didn't know about the project that had consumed his summer. These were the tests assessing things that gnawed at the high-school chemistry knowledge in the far reaches of his brain — dissolved oxygen, conductivity, suspended solids. He knew this stuff the way a kid knows his multiplication tables before he's learned mental math: As long as he memorized the steps, he didn't have to understand what went into them.
Franklin poured a little out of the first bottle into a machine resembling a blender, pressed a button, waited for the numbers to flash on the small screen at the bottom. Then the next bottle, and the next. When he finished a few hours later, at the height of the day's heat, it was time to get back on his bike and return to the tank for the second round of samples. Gather, test, repeat.
With Float Lab, the work isn't quite as labor-intensive. Many of the measurements are now taken by a YSI monitor, a computerized sensor that records 11 different parameters and transmits the data every 15 minutes to a water-quality database. Earlier in June, the team debuted the + POOL Dashboard, allowing future swimmers to monitor the lab's progress.
"It's a website that takes all this real-time data and makes it graphically and visually understandable to the general public," Wong explains. "The whole point is that you can go to the site and simply understand: Is the water clean or not?"
In 1817, before Central Park made the outer edges of Manhattan unfashionable, The Stranger's Guide to New York published the city's first record of swimming pools: advertisements for two privately owned floating baths in the Hudson River near Battery Park. Essentially square houseboats, the baths quickly became social destinations for New York's upper class, a place to see and be seen as much as to swim.
But as with so many things in a city of New York's speed, by the time they arrived on the scene, the pools were already on their way out.
There was a time when Manhattan's waterfront bustled with industry and all that went with it, when its status as a port city meant its sides were lined not only with docks, but with the amenities to serve the men who worked them. There were warehouses and shipping offices, but also boardinghouses, brothels, and taverns. In its early days, the city's economy was nourished by the life along its shoreline; its rivers were a vital part of its lifeblood.
But need should never be confused with love, and if Manhattan is honest with itself, it has always loved its polished center more than its rougher edges. Over time, those who could afford it were pulled inward by the bustle of Broadway and, as it was built through the 1850s and '60s, the oasis that is Central Park.
The rivers began to receive a totally different sort of attention after the Civil War, as the concept of public baths transformed from recreational to a tool of social welfare. Those who could afford it had already begun to migrate further inland, and as cleanliness became a national obsession, public health advocates called for publicly owned baths along the shore to improve hygiene among the city's poorer residents.
When the baths returned, they were filled by a very different set than the high society depicted in The Stranger's Guide. The first two free-floating baths, built in the 1870s on the East and Hudson rivers, were a modification of the pools that had existed earlier in the century: floating wells 90 feet long by 60 feet wide and filled with up to five feet of river water, depending on the amount of air in the pontoons that kept them afloat. As the flow of immigration swelled to a tidal wave in the 1880s, the number of pools increased to 15 to accommodate the growth of the lower classes, with the majority clustered near the tenements of the Lower East Side.
As New York City pushed its poor into the rivers, it did the same with its waste. By the early 20th century, a new wave of health reformers, led by Jacob Riis and the Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor, had launched a movement to get rid of the baths, arguing that they caused more health problems than they solved. In 1916, under pressure from AICP, the city began constructing permanent bathhouses, adding showers around the perimeters and lime to treat the water they contained. For the first time, revamped zoning laws kept the baths away from open sewers.
At the same time, another option was emerging. The new Catskill Aqueduct provided the city with an abundant supply of fresh water, allowing for easy construction of contained indoor pools. The city began to shutter its floating bathhouses in favor of a more sanitary alternative; in 1936, it opened 10 new, modern swimming pools with filtration and chlorination systems in place. By the early 1940s, all of the floating baths had been either dismantled or rebuilt as indoor recreation centers.
The transformation was indicative of the city's attitude toward its rivers. By the mid-20th century, the waterfront's fate had been sealed by the construction of highways on either side of Manhattan, blocking off easy access to both the East and Hudson rivers at nearly every point — "the Original Sin of Manhattan planning," author Philip Lopate wrote in Waterfront, his part ode, part history of the borough's shoreline.
The city has tried to make up for this in other ways. As of last summer, there were 34 full-size public indoor pools in New York City, 19 mini-pools, and 12 outdoor pools. In 2007, taking a small step back into the rivers, the nonprofit Neptune Foundation opened the Floating Pool Lady, a pool dug into a repurposed barge at Brooklyn Bridge Park. The foundation donated the barge to the city the following year and relocated it to Barretto Point Park in the Bronx, where it remains.
Class divisions still affect New Yorkers' access to recreational swimming. The only free option, in a city where half the population is at or close to poverty level, is the outdoor pools, which are open only a few months out of the year. Those looking to take a dip in the offseason can pay $150 for an annual membership to a city-run recreation center, or far more to access any number of pools in private clubs, swanky gyms, or on the roofs of upscale hotels and apartment buildings.
Wong, Coates, and Franklin are zealous about making sure + POOL is open to as many people as possible. The soul of the project, they argue, lies with the public, an entity they talk about in almost reverent tones — it was born of public need, brought to life with crowdsourced dollars.
Their crystallizing moment came in 2010, shortly after the + POOL website launched. The group got an invitation from a real estate developer to present their project. In the days leading up to the meeting, the three couldn't help wondering if they'd found the angel investor they'd been waiting for.
But minutes after their arrival, the developer made a pitch they hadn't expected: A floating pool would be a fantastic amenity for an apartment complex he was building on the city's West Side. Maybe it could even have a swim-up bar. Would they be interested in collaborating?
Making the pool a piece of privately owned property wasn't something the three of them had ever discussed. Coates and Franklin looked to Wong, the unofficial leader of their team. The silence edged dangerously close to awkward.
"Why did you call us in here?" Wong asked, finally.
Another pause. He wanted to invest in their project, the developer said. And he wanted it to be a members-only club.
Wong shrugged. "I think we're done," he said.
The partners adjourned to a bar. Not entirely sure what they were celebrating, they ordered a pitcher of Budweiser and pickleback shots.
In hindsight, the meeting with the developer "started to cement what the project was for," Wong says. "We weren't going to shortchange the first pool that way."
Adds Coates: "There are times that you remember very clearly, and this was one of those times, because I was just so proud of my team and what + POOL stood for. It was like, 'Hell if this is going to be a private club.' This project is about everybody and it's about giving as many people access to the water as possible. That's the project."
The team uses Float Lab to test the effectiveness of the filters that are the key to the success of + POOL.
On a foggy day in April, a crane lifted the bright blue dock of Float Lab from its construction site at Liberty Landing Marina in Jersey City and dropped it carefully into the water. Wong and Coates watched as their creation was hitched to the back of the tugboat that would pull it to its final destination at Hudson River Park, where Franklin waited with a video camera to record the moment.
Then they climbed aboard, sprawling their legs out around the filtration tubs as they felt the river move beneath them. It was a rare and welcome moment, and it felt good, if strange. + POOL had been a lot of things over the past four years: inspiring, exhilarating, demanding, at times brutally exhausting. But for the 15 minutes it took to cross the river, all that existed was the Manhattan skyline, and, everywhere, water.
Then the tugboat bumped up against Pier 40, reminding them that there was much more yet to be done.
The day felt enormous, reminding Wong of his favorite moment of the + POOL journey, one that transpired when the idea was little more than a blueprint.
In 2011, a week or so into their first Kickstarter campaign, he received a call from a timid, high-pitched voice.
The little girl didn't identify herself, Wong recalls. Instead, she barreled straight into the purpose of her call.
Would the pool be open tomorrow? she asked.
We're still working on it, he told her. It will be open in a few years.
Oh, OK, she said. Well, thanks. She hung up as the sound of an adult's laughter filled the phone.
"It was so sad and so heartwarming," Wong says. Back then he didn't know if his promise to her was an empty one.
With Float Lab in the water, he's pretty confident he's got the goods to deliver.
"I never thought we'd be working on it three or four years later," he says. "And I never thought it would be as real as it was today."
Follow the author on Twitter at @cariromm
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