Buy Part of This Bar/Coffeeshop/Restaurant/Hardware Store
On Friday evening, in a gutted building at 1351 H St. NE, Washington witnessed the beginning of a real estate revolution.
Or at least, that's what the Miller brothers are telling people.
"Real estate is broken," declared Ben Miller, standing in front of a projector screen, just missing the black turtleneck and wire-framed glasses that would have completed the Jobs-ian aesthetic. "Nobody is asking you what you want. It doesn't make any sense."
What's supposed to solve that? A new website, based on a very old (in internet years) idea: Getting people to contribute their ideas for a particular project online, and vote for the ones they like. In this case, it's commercial concepts for storefronts, like the very one several dozen people had their name checked against a list to enter that night—which the Millers bought last month as a sort of demonstration project for their new philosophy—as well as a location on 11th Street in Columbia Heights.
The site is called Popularise, and right now, people can opine on whether the space should become a farm-to-table restaurant, a Red Rocks-style pizzeria, a Durkl store, or something else entirely—not just a corporate concept that's performed reasonably well in other markets. Prospective tenants can even throw their proposal into the crowd (if they're willing to give up the goods before going public, which isn't the entrepreneur's typical m.o.) It's Wikipedia to the old model's Encarta, Miller explained.
"That sounds like a crazy idea, but it's how my father would do it," he said, referring to local real estate legend Herb Miller's habit of asking consumers on the street what they needed in a given location. Miller the elder looked on, expressionless, near the back. "All of a sudden, everybody in the city is going to start building what they want."
Of course, not everything that people want is economically viable. That's where the flip side of Popularise comes in: Eventually, residents will be able to actually buy shares in the business, putting down capital to get it started and thereby becoming invested in its success.
"You are part of this neighborhood," Miller said. "It makes no sense that you don't own something on H Street."
It's a little gimmicky, sure. Most of the places that people love on H Street—and Bloomingdale, and Dupont Circle, and U Street—are the way they are because someone had a vision that filled a neighborhood need. Ben and Dan Miller just happen to have the money to spend on a fancy website that will potentially gather data from a larger swath of people (they seem to have no sense of urgency for the H Street property; after all, they've got other things to work on while the "community" decides what to do with it). The resident ownership piece could be quite powerful, but it could also go fantastically wrong, if for whatever reason the business didn't make money or wasn't what the community had in mind.
That's a risk the Miller team is willing to take, though. After the presentation, platters of hors d'oevres started coming out of the basement, a bonfire got started in the backyard, and someone ripped down a plastic screen to reveal a giant boom-box-shaped DJ booth with "Popularise.com: Build Your City" emblazoned on the front. Ben, Dan, and fellow WestMill staffers Kenny Shin and Brandon Jenkins filtered through the assembly, expounding further on their concept to anyone who would listen, and ushering around the owner of Fat Radish, a restaurant on Manhattan's Lower East Side that the Millers adore.
Success or failure is for later–right now, it's just a fun ride.
Photo via Popularise.com