How Popularise brought crowdsourcing to D.C.’s commercial real estate market



The tycoon Herbert S. Miller developed his real estate the old-fashioned way: He built it.

His sons, Ben and Dan Miller, have taken a decidedly modern approach to the family business: They want you, me and everyone we know to decide the next big commercial real estate deal.

In December the brothers created Popularise, a Web site that allows the public to vote on tenants for empty retail spaces — some of which their WestMill Capital investment firm own and some of which belong to other developers. “Build your city,” the site says.

It’s crowdsourcing for real estate.

After the votes are logged, the property owners — guided by popular demand — decide which tenant gets the spot.

Several months after launching the site, the Millers have leased their first building, with the help of Popularise, for a building on H Street NE next to the Rock and Roll Hotel. They settled on two businesses, and the space will be split between an Asian-inspired eatery by Erik Bruner-Yang, the chef behind the nearby ramen shop, Toki Underground, and a flagship store for Durkl, a D.C.-based clothing start-up.

“We feel like there is a strong correlation between success of a project and what people want,” Ben Miller said. “We think the H Street tenants are something people are going to be excited about and will also be a good investment on our part.”

Popularise plasters storefronts with giant black posters that ask passers-by, “What would YOU build here?” Ideas are submitted online by future customers or the business owners themselves. Users submit votes, or “build-its,” for a type of establishment — or even a specific store — on any property listed.

Popularise has four listings in the District: the H Street building; the Lustine building on 14th Street NW; a three-story office building in Shaw near Sixth and S streets NW and the Powerhouse in Georgetown.

Most people, Miller said, don’t get a say in how their neighborhoods take shape. Popularise is one solution to what he calls a “broken community engagement process.” The process can sometimes be subject to NIMBYism and low turnout, and Miller hopes Popularise will open up the conversation.

“In [Advisory Neighborhood Commission] meetings, you have a vocal minority that dominates,” Miller said. “You can have a much broader discussion with thousands of people and have it be dynamic. Popularise is the 21st-century version of a community meeting.”

Miller said several thousand people have voted on properties so far. Aside from WestMill, which owns the H Street space, the other D.C. property owners on Popularise include Lustine Realty, which owns the 14th Street building, and the United House of Prayer for All People, which owns the Shaw building. Late last year, restaurateur Eric Gronning used the service to crowdsource a concept for a restaurant space he had already purchased in Columbia Heights.  The winning pitch became Maple, an Italian wine bar and eatery.

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