Closed sidewalks in Atlanta – enough already

By Maria Saporta

Atlanta’s new motto? “Sidewalk Closed.”

One of the unfortunate by-products of developers and companies investing in Atlanta’s real estate is how sidewalks disappear when their projects are under construction.

In just a few blocks in Midtown – between Piedmont Avenue and Spring Street and from 4th Street to 14th Street – dozens of “Sidewalk Closed” signs have popped up.

I’ve included about a dozen photos to show examples of how we slight pedestrians in Atlanta’s most walkable communities – see below.

Try walking from the Midtown MARTA Station to the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta along Peachtree Walk. Most of the sidewalk on the west side of Peachtree Walk (how ironic given the street’s name) is closed off. Then one will find the sidewalk on south side of 11th Street from Peachtree Walk to West Peachtree is closed off as part of the same development.

Peachtree Walk and 11th Street

Peachtree Walk? Not quite. Pedestrians are not allowed to walk along Peachtree Walk or 11th Street because of one development (Photos by Maria Saporta)

Cross over 11th Street, and you will be greeted with more “Closed Sidewalk” signs on the north side of the street from Peachtree Walk to Crescent. Of course, the sidewalk along Crescent is also closed.

Going west on 11th Street, one will find closed sidewalks bordering the block of West Peachtree, 10th Street and Spring Street

In fact, one can hardly find a block in the commercial part of Midtown without a “Sidewalk Closed” sign.

And Midtown is supposed to be one of the most pedestrian friendly communities in Atlanta. Even urbanist Chris Leinberger has proclaimed Midtown to be one of the Walkable Urban Places (Walk UPs) in our region.

Maybe someone at City Hall is handing out “Closed Sidewalk” signs as if it were candy – treats to please and reward developers for investing in the city.

closed sidewalk

A view of the closed sidewalk on Peachtree Walk leading to the Midtown MARTA Station

Well let’s be truthful. A truly walkable city would never allow developers to close so many sidewalks.

Could you imagine closing off every other sidewalk in New York City? No way. New Yorkers, unlike Atlantans, recognize and respect that walking is a mode of transportation.

More importantly, we are trying to create more walkable communities. Developers are attracted to pedestrian-oriented, transit-oriented environments. Why? Because it is becoming more economically lucrative for developments to cater to walk-in traffic. People like working and living in places where they can walk.

So if a developers are closing off sidewalks during construction, in a subtle way, they are hurting their own economic interests. And they certainly are creating a drag on the existing businesses that have opened their doors to people on foot.

In a perfect world, we would ban “Closed Sidewalks” from ever being accepted during construction.

closed sidewalks

A sidewalk to nowhere. Pedestrians walking along Spring Street towards 10th Street are out of luck

Obviously, we’re not there yet. But I would argue that we certainly shouldn’t be so willing to close off as many sidewalks as we have.

In many cases, sidewalks are closed on streets with little vehicular traffic. Why can’t the city and the developer agree to cordon off three feet or four feet – either by taking space from the development or by taking space from the street.

There must be a way to stop the proliferation of “Closed Sidewalk” signs, and most importantly, closed sidewalks.

We should be able to follow the lead of major cities where developers actually build a protected walkway for pedestrians – to make sure they are not hit with debris from a skyscraper construction site.

A quick study of how other densely-built cities address safe passage for pedestrians during the construction or renovation of buildings would be an easy exercise.

Atlanta could learn from best practices that have worked in other cities – and actually begin acting like the big city we’ve become.

The bottom-line is that when you seek to become a lively and thriving metropolis – pedestrians matter.

closed sidewalks

Even construction workers have to maneuver around closed sidewalks – here at 11th and Crescent in Midtown

closed sidewalk

A man in uniform has to cross 11th Street at Piedmont because the sidewalk is closed

closed sidewall

Illustration of new development obviously posted for motorists because sidewalks are closed at West Peachtree and 10th streets

closed sidewalk

Two men ignore the “Closed Sidewalk” signs as they walk along Peachtree Street near 5th Street

closed sidewalk

Here is a combo. The sidewalk along 7th Street is closed, but the sidewalk along Peachtree Street has a covered walkway for pedestrians

closed sidewalk

Another combo: this development at West Peachtree and 8th streets has closed the sidewalk along 8th – but it has kept the sidewalk open along Peachtree Place

closed sidewalk

Here is 11th Street approaching Juniper from Piedmont

closed sidewalk

A residential development along Juniper Street near 5th Street actually has room for pedestrians, but the sidewalk is closed because it’s all torn up

closed sidewalk

A cyclist rides next to the closed sidewalk along 5th Street at Piedmont

closed sidewalk

Another closed sidewalk on a lightly-traveled Cypress Street near 3rd

Another view of Crescent at 11th Street. This shot shows how built up Midtown has become with street-level retail - until one gets to a construction site

Another view of Crescent at 11th Street. This shot shows how built up Midtown has become with street-level retail – until one gets to a construction site

closed sidewalk

The development at Cheshire Bridge and Piedmont has closed off both a lane and the sidewalk – creating an almost constant traffic problem

closed sidewalk

And we can’t forget our friends at the Center for Puppetry Arts – here is a closed sidewalk along Spring Street at 18th Street

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

30 replies
  1. Dan says:

    Thank you for bringing attention to this. I never understood how developers ever get approval to do this. Any other major city I go to has a dedicated and protected pedestrian pathway. Why can’t Atlanta require developers to do this?Report

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  2. ThomAbbott says:

    Maria…I love you to death. But I have to somewhat question this post. It’s call progress. Development rules in the Midtown District call for certain things in the sidewalk zone, and the supplemental zone. I’m sure that to make the developments not look like “oh we built a building and totally left the sidewalk as it was, these developers (and planners) are working to improve what we have. I stand to be corrected, but I think on every street you call into question, there is a sidewalk on the other side of the street. Now, if there are two developments directly ACROSS from each other that eliminate the sidewalk traffic entirely, then I would be opposed. But I simply look at all of this as progress. Growing is always going to have “pains.” Remodel your kitchen and you are going to have pain until it is done. 

    I recall when Loews and 1065 were being build. I know the sidewalk was covered for a time, but eventually, it must have been closed to create the new, wide, engaging sidewalk that is there now. 

    Let’s look at the positive of all the new things coming, and know we sometime will have some “pain” to have some “gain.”Report

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  3. Kevin L. Hudson says:

    At a minimum, each sidewalk closure should require a permitting process (parallel to other permits!) that includes a review of options, needs, accessibility (both in the sense of reaching other businesses and mobility assistance) and safety. In some cases, temporary crosswalks need to be installed, or existing ones enhanced, to assist pedestrians in getting around, and signal timings may need to be changed temporarily. Also, many of the current “sidewalk closed” signs are positioned AT the closure, rather than near the previous intersection, and (most ironically) some cause trip hazards or otherwise block adjacent sidewalks that are still open. (Note how the first photo in the story is blocking people from using the crosswalk at the end of the walk.)Report

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  4. Ben Gibbs says:

    I live off Piedmont and 11th and what the developers are doing right to that corner for pedestrians and traffic is absolutely awful. The north side of 11th has broken sidewalks, so 11th is for all intents and purposes unwalkable. The view turning left onto Piedmont from 11th is also obstructed by the developer’s painted-blue wood walls as to be extremely dangerous for cars and pedestrians. And this is just one example of how the quality of life for those of us who work and live in Midtown is being diminished during this development cycle. We want development in Midtown but sustainable development that is considerate of those who live and work and visit here. Thank you for raising this issue!Report

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  5. Wormser Hats says:

    ThomAbbott  Closing a sidewalk to access buried utilities improve the pedestrian facility or protect the public from temporary overhead hazards is one thing, but closing it to expand a developer’s worksite for the duration of construction is quite another. 

    If Washington DC can require sidewalks be kept open and shielded with temporary accommodations for pedestrians, Atlanta has no excuse for doing likewise, other than bureaucratic laziness and kowtowing to the developers who – in increasing capacity and tax revenue – also increase demands for mobility.Report

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  6. Tom Woodward says:

    What became of the ordinance Cathy Woolard pushed through, while on City Council, requiring existing sidewalks to remain open during construction and to be covered to protect pedestrians?  Did it expire?Report

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  7. Sally Flocks says:

    Thanks Maria. Pictures are worth a thousand words. And a dozen pictures far more.
    The Atlanta City Council passed a resolution over 15 years ago calling on Public Works to show maximum consideration for pedestrians when issuing permits to close sidewalks.The ordinance allows developers to close sidewalks only as a last resort. Top recommendation: leave at least 4 feet of clear space on the sidewalk. If that’s not possible, install a covered walkway. If that’s not sufficient, close a parking or travel lane and install barricades that create a safe barrier between people who walk and motorists.

    Far too often, Public Works has failed to follow recommended practices adopted by the city. During a walk with Public Works officials in March, we learned that Public Works officials had issued many permits allowing developers to close sidewalks simply because a sidewalk existed on the other side of the street. On some roads with closed sidewalks, travel lanes are wide enough that barricades creating a safe path for walking could have been installed without closing a lane of traffic. Peachtree Place is a good example. During a meeting earlier this summer, a transportation engineer said that when buildings are constructed close to the street, too little space is available to keep the entire sidewalk open. This is certainly not the case in most locations. Closed sidewalk signs that Public Works is allowing violate ADA requirements. ADA requires signs to block the entire sidewalk. Someone with visual impairments could easily assume the signs were part of a sandwich board for a shop or restaurant.

    When a sidewalk is closed, few people are willing to cross the street. Instead, they walk in the street. The existence of the fence makes it impossible to step out of the way of cars.  

    Far more development is coming to Midtown — so this is a problem that needs to be resolved now.Report

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  8. Gideon Maxwell says:

    Another example in Midtown: the sidewalk on Juniper street between Ponce and North has been closed for over a year for construction of the Emory Proton Therapy Center. Now they don’t even have funding to finish the project, there’s no active construction, and the sidewalk remains closed. This shouldn’t be allowed.Report

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  9. Sally Flocks says:

    Tom Woodward  The policy I described above is the one Cathy Woolard introduced. It’s had modest changes — but is still in place. City policy is not the change. Instead, it’s city practices. Public Works rarely requires developers to install covered walkways above sidewalks or pay for barricades that enable Public Works to close part of the road to car traffic. Public Works also needs to provide more public inspection. A couple years ago sidewalks were closed on both sides of Pharr Road to the east of Peachtree Road. When I reported this to Public Works, I was told that one of the permits had expired over a year earlier.Report

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  10. Wormser Hats says:

    Sally Flocks  Wait! Is this the same Public Works Department that – a little over a year ago – sent threatening  letters to residents in southeast, demanding landowners make costly repairs to unmaintained city’ sidewalks in the right-of-way (all under the guise of ADA and code compliance)?  Mr. Mendoza, say it isn’t so!Report

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  11. Sally Flocks says:

    @Dan Atlanta can. The real question is political will. With help from Maria and all of you, we can make this happen. If you’re not on PEDS e-newsletter list yet, please subscribe. You can do so at peds.org.  We’ll schedule another walking tour in Midtown soon — and subscribing to our e-newsletter is the best way for you to know the date and starting point for the walk.Report

    Reply
  12. Dan Molino says:

    Thank you for the pictures. They only begin to show the horrible conditions for pedestrians in Midtown.  Unfortunately the ordinance that Cathy Woolard wrote and of which Sally Flocks mentions “maximum consideration” required for pedestrians has an out clause for the public works commissioner to close the sidewalk during construction.  He chooses this out clause every single time a permit is requested to close a sidewalk for construction.  He is operating within the law.  While he could chose to enforce it differently, he doesn’t thinking that he is acting in the best interest of public safety.  If you don’t like how he enforces it, then you must see that other people are put in his place that will enforce the law differently.  The city council people like Kwanza Hall, Alex Wan and Mary Norwood can only request action of the code enforcers.  They can’t force them to enforce the law differently.  They can only rewrite the laws.  We must put people on city council willing to re-write the ordinance and remove the out.  I have not found that either Kwanza Hall or Alex Wan are willing to change the failed ordinances that we have so they must be replaced if we want our sidewalks open.  Even after these council members met and walked the streets of Midtown with citizens including Sally Flocks of PEDS and the Commissioner of Public Works we have seen no changes.  I know that the council members know of the problem.  What I don’t know is why they have taken no action ordinance wise.  Further, we must put people on the enforcement side that put pedestrians first and that are willing to stand up to the interest of businesses and growth.  Commissioner Mendoza of Public Works and Gregory Pace of the building department and Kevin Greene of Midtown Alliance’s Midtown Blue who are in charge of enforcement in Midtown do not do this.  This article proves that.  My personal experience with these gentlemen over the last few years also support that.  Specifically, I asked Mr. Greene to use his influence to help amend SPI-16 to force sidewalks open during construction.  He refused.  I asked Commissioner Mendoza to publish the sidewalk closure justifications that come from the developers.  He refused.  I asked Mr. Pace to pull building permits when developers overstep ordinances and build out onto the sidewalk.  He refused.  These three must be replaced if we are ever to have our sidewalks back.  If you are upset about sidewalk closures then contact these three directly and demand that they enforce our laws differently than they have been.   Mr Green of Midtown Alliance can be reached at and Commissioner Mendoza  is at , and building director, Gregory Pace is at   Unfortunately, construction obstruction is not the only failure of these three gentlemen.  SPI-16 and Section 10-1 of city ordinance govern sidewalk right of way of other types of obstructions.  No free standing signs are allowed in Midtown anywhere.  This includes those menu signs at restaurants and valet parking signs which often find their way into the sidewalk.  Outdoor dining areas are taking over our sidewalks and these three men are not doing enough to stop it.   Outdoor dining in midtown must be enclosed by a NON-FIXED and contiguous barrier less than 40 inches high including plants.  These barriers must provide 10 feet of walk space along all streets except along Peachtree St which requires 15 feet of walks space.  Dining umbrellas and tree limbs must be 8 feet over head.  I have personally asked these gentlemen to correct these violations that occur on my block of Midtown.  They refuse.  How many times have you had to walk around someone sitting in a chair and eating their lunch?   Further, delivery trucks such as UPS and FedEx and buses dropping guests at hotels are allowed to use our streets as a loading zone despite a 1990’s ordinance requiring a loading dock for all new construction in midtown.  These vehicles cause traffic jams which block our crosswalks.  Mr. Greene has personally told me that he sees no problem with this.  He refuses to instruct the officers of Midtown Blue to enforce these no parking zones of Midtown.  We should not allow our taxes to employ people who favor business development over public safety.  Thank you for the pictures and this article which points out a long standing issue that is going unchecked.  Now will you add to this article the other kinds of sidewalk obstructions that we have.  How about pictures of outdoor dining, free standing signs, and delivery vehicles that cause similar pedestrian safety issues?Report

    Reply
  13. Burroughston Broch says:

    You are all much too gentle.
    The developers and contractors are paying off City workers to look the other way because it saves them money. Take more photos with the City workers in them, take the photos and this article to your City Council member, and demand the regulations be enforced and the workers be fired.
    Beat of luck!Report

    Reply
  14. Fuuukwaaaa says:

    Jeff Fuqua has closed a sidewalk on Piedmont Road by Cheshire Bridge and A LANE OF TRAFFIC for most of the summer to throw up his latest big box monstrosity.Report

    Reply
  15. Sally Flocks says:

    Dan Molino The updated policy dated February 21, 2014 lists guidelines, in order of preference, of what Public Works should allow: First choice: ok to close part of a sidewalk if it’s at least 4 feet wide and accessible to people with disabilities. 2nd option: Install a covered walkway. 3rd option: If that’s not feasible, “A temporary pedestrian route shall be created using the adjacent travel lane if a 4 foot wide pedestrian access cannot be achieved [via options 1 or 2] and if approved by City engineer; barricades and signage for ADA accessibility for pedestrian safety must be provided.  This is the provision that gives Public Works too much leeway. It’s understandable that a transportation engineer will need to approve putting barricades in the street — but City engineers do not approve this far too often. The eastbound travel lane on Peachtree Place, for example, is far wider than needed — so creating a temporary travel lane should not have been a problem  The next bullet point states: “If a wheelchair accessible pedestrian passageway cannot be provided using one of the the methodologies outlined above, the City may allow detouring of pedestrian traffic in extenuating circumstances. If pedestrian traffic has been approved to be re-directed to cross on the other side of the street and that right of way (sidewalks/intersections) does not meet current ADA requirements; it is the contractor’s responsibility to bring it up to code and meet all other signage and barricade requirements before the sidewalk closure permit will be issued.

    As a next step, I encourage everyone who walks near one of the closed sidewalks to inspect the condition of the sidewalk on the other side of the street, as well as the compliance of curb ramps at intersections with ADA regulations. Sidewalks must have at least four feet of clear space with no changes in level greater than 1/4 inch unless that area is beveled. And no greater than 1/2” even if it is beveled. Cross slopes cannot exceed 2 percent, including at driveways — for a width of at least 4 feet.

    Midtown Blue lacks authority to force Public Works to keep sidewalks open. Closing sidewalks is not a crime that can be enforced by police officers. Midtown Alliance is a non-profit organization. Like PEDS, it too lacks authority to force Public Works to keep sidewalks open. 
    We need to continue bringing public attention to the agency’s failure to approve options like installing scaffolding above the sideawlk or installing barricades that enable people to safely walk in a portion of the road when needed. PEDS has asked and will continue asking Public Works to increase transparency about why it denied options that are preferable to forcing people to cross the street.Report

    Reply
  16. Dan Molino says:

    Sally Flocks
    Sally – Thank you for a
    quoting city ordinances.  For those that don’t know them like you and I this
    may be helpful.  I chose not to
    quote them for a really good reason.  You seem to think it is helpful for
    citizens to know these ordinances in detail.  Further, you
    encourage people to become inspectors of sidewalks and give them all the
    information about what is a proper sidewalk.  This is not what I think is
    the solution to the problem.  What you suggest works AFTER we have a fully
    functioning, well honed, system for public safety in place.  We don’t have that now and citizens taking on
    the responsibilities of government is NOT how to get to a better system. Citizens should not fix lax enforcement by
    becoming a part of the enforcement process themselves.  Instead, citizens should put into place people
    who are trained and qualified to do be inspectors and enforcers.  We
    should elect people who fully fund departments and train our city workers
    properly.  We don’t have that now under Mayor Reed.Most city inspectors cannot spell ADA.Our current inspectors are not trained to
    identify much less empowered to fix the ADA problems you point out.   I
    had one public works inspector with 20 years experience in Atlanta ask me to
    explain what a scaffolding was.  How do you think we can get the
    scaffolding solution suggested by ordinance when people working as inspectors
    don’t know the basics?

    Does this mean that citizens should
    stop pointing out failures of the system?Absolutely not.I think the best
    thing we can do is exactly what you said about transparency.Only I would go further.I want to FORCE (not request) our public
    works department to publicly justify their decisions.I tried desperately to get public works Commissioner
    Mendoza to publishthe reasons for
    closing the sidewalks at 11th and Crescent.Not only did he refuse but he refused to say
    why he refused.This is unacceptable behavior
    from our government officials. If their methods become more transparent as
    you suggest, then we can start to change these methods TOGETHER.As long as they are kept from the public then
    the methods can continue to stay the same.PEDS asking for this transparency is one option for improvement.Another option is to contact public works and
    the building department directly and demand transparency.Another option is to lobby our council
    people to write laws that force transparency into the system. Another option is to elect people to the mayor’s
    office who understand the weaknesses in our current system and are willing to
    fund personnel training and change processes to be more transparent. My experience with Council Member Kwanza Hall
    is an unwillingness to address specific sidewalk closures in his district in
    Midtown, therefore he is NOT on my list of mayoral candidates.Previous council president Cathy Woolard who
    helped draft the only meaningful ordinance regarding construction obstruction IS
    on my list.Council member Mary Norwood
    who recently drafted the ordinance about funding of sidewalk repairs IS on my
    list.

    And you are wrong about Midtown
    Blue.  Police officers used to be forbidden from enforcing public works
    type of issues.  This is no longer the case if it ever was. Mr.
    Leighty of Midtown Blue and in fact any APD officer can ticket for closing the
    sidewalk without a permit, or any obstructions to the sidewalk like outdoor
    dining, signs, lights, or even trees.  However, they often don’t because their
    training in all of these ordinances is less than two weeks.They don’t feel confident issuing citations
    for violations which are public works in nature.Instead, they will tell citizens to call and
    ask for public work’s code enforcement. They will make citizens think this is the only
    course of action available to them to an obstruction problem.In my experience this is a wasted call as
    these code enforcers are no better trained than most APD officers.Public works code enforcement is certainly not
    trained in the Special Public Interest sections of our code such as SPI-16
    which applies to Midtown. I’ve witnessed this as recently as three weeks
    ago. I included Midtown Alliance in m y previous comment
    because they have tremendous influence in the content of SPI-16 which contains
    public works types of ordinances specific to Midtown.For example, SPI-16 states that sidewalks in
    Midtown must provide 10 feet of walk space everywhere except Peachtree St which
    requires 15 feet.Outside of Midtown in
    similar urban Atlanta areas, city ordinance requires only 8 feet. We
    have a higher density of people in Midtown therefore we require a wider walk
    space. The same could be said of the sidewalk
    closures during construction. Midtown has a density of construction like
    nowhere else in the city or the southeast US for that matter.Perhaps Buckhead or Charlotte is similar in this regard. We don’t
    have to make changes to city wide ordinances to affect change to a significant
    number of sidewalks.In fact, a change
    to SPI-16 could affect most of the construction obstructions identified in Ms
    Saporta’s article.Changes to SPI-16 are
    so much easier than getting a change to an ordinances which impacts the entire city. Changes to SPI-16 can only happen with the
    backing of Midtown Alliance and that will never happen as long as Mr. Greene is
    president of this organization.He has
    demonstrated to me through his lack of action and direction to Midtown Blue that
    sidewalk obstructions are not a priority for him.

    Again, thank you Sally for your
    efforts with PEDS and for the valuable details about city ordinances that you
    shared in this post.I know many will be
    glad to see the details because knowledge is power.Unfortunately, in this instance knowledge of
    the ordinances is it just not powerful enough to change our deficient city
    government. Getting new people in place
    who have the right motivation is.Report

    Reply
  17. mikeleeph12 says:

    @Fuuukwaaaa I agree that is absolutely disgusting.  How can they only keep one lane of Cheshire Bridge open?  It’s creating gridlock conditions on one of the most highly-traveled corridors.  It’s unacceptable.  But it’s pretty much Kasim Reed’s way.  To hell with commuters.  To hell with the quality of life.  As long as he gets his pockets lined by developers, he doesn’t give a damn.  This development, like most on the north side, seems way over the top for the area.  Don’t developers ever commission a traffic study before they put up their monstrosities??Report

    Reply
  18. ironiclad says:

    Maria, Atlanta will never be a world-class city with its patched streets and roads, its ruts, its unfinished projects covered by steel plates and, yes, the closed sidewalks. We live in the City of Atlanta and DeKalb County. (Ah, maybe we’re sadists.) We often drive Briarcliff, Clifton, Lenox, Cheshire Bridge, LaVista and (fill in the blank). What is happening with the funds from the referendum that was passed earlier this year to improve infrastructure?

    Once again the city is overbuilding, and its current infrastructure does not support its myriad projects.Report

    Reply
  19. ironiclad says:

    bcngator63 ironiclad True enough. The pols I’m referring to are already happily housed in Arthur Blank’s pockets. Why would they care about the little people?Report

    Reply

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