Housing Complex

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

  • hahaha

    Remember when Time Magazine named "You" as the Person of the Year? That was FIVE years ago! I actually just got of the phone with 2006, and it wants this silly stunt back.

  • er

    it may be silly, but it's a fun and engaging idea. it sparks some dialogue and ideas get thrown around. mostly ideas from people that want these things but would never actually put them into action themselves.
    lydia says, "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."

    but that's the case with places that people hate too. and isn't a place that's spurred by community interest something formed by a vision and fills a neighborhood need? i think it is.

  • bagit

    bookstore or tool-share shed like the one they (used to?) have in Mt. Rainier, MD.

  • John

    Actually, nothing too radical here. A fusion of neighborhood discussion board with Prosper.com/Lending Club. Aggregate small lenders/investors into popular development projects and bypass the banks. I assume the site will take a piece of the action being the middle man.

  • Dave B

    "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
    ----------------------------------------------

    Their dad was like "I should have never given you money to play with. All I've done for you and you pay me back by dragging my name into this boring, unoriginal, overhyped, stupid, idea of yours that sounds like an entry to a middle school business plan competition????"

    Good luck, boys, with the ideas submitted by a VERY small sample of the community: those that are super web dorks, prone to stupid internet gimmicks, and think all their unique ideas are REALLY REALLY good. I can't wait to see your cupcakery/fixed gear bike repair shop open

  • H Street Native

    The corridor is in desperate need of a gym, like WSC or Gold's.

  • sheila

    How about a Soul Food restaurant? This would capitalize on
    the pent up demand for good, soulful cooking on H Street.
    In addition to the folk already in the community, this would attract throngs of diners from all over the Metropolitan area as there are not very many left -- and
    who doesn't like barbq chicken, ribs, greens, steaks,
    yams, cornbread, bread puddding, peach cobbler, etc.?

  • StrangeFruit

    @ Sheila,

    I agree! Bring back soul food on H St!

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  • AfterThought

    ""All of a sudden, everybody in the city is going to start building what they want.""

    View 5:00 mins TEDxHarkerSchool - Guy Kawasaki http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=edEs4sjlmJY
    "People don't know what they want... they can only tell you they want bigger, faster, stronger status quo."

    ------------------------------------------------
    ""You are part of this neighborhood," Miller said. "It makes no sense that you don't own something on H Street.""

    Out of all the ideas submitted on Popularise do any of the people actually own anything on H St?
    Most are service industry kids, the skin they have in the H St game is emotional not financial. They work the establishments and they know eachother like a big extended family. Work with that.

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