November 09, 2012
Urban Land Institute — by Sarah Nemecek
Residents of Washington, D.C.’s hip H Street corridor may be surprised to see a building-sized banner hanging over the facade of an empty property at 1351 H Street, N.E. Reading “What would you build here?” the banner is a dramatic reminder of both the property’s emptiness and its potential to be transformed.
It is no hypothetical question: the banner directs readers to a new website Popularise.com, a social-media forum that allows users to have a direct say in how the property will be developed.
Founded by Ben and Daniel Miller, sons of prominent D.C. real estate developerHerb Miller and developers in their own right, Popularise aims to turn the real estate industry on its head by, as the site says, putting “the power back in the hands of the people who care.” Reminiscent of other social-media sites like Twitter(Popularise also calls its users “followers”), the website works by allowing the public to comment and vote on a list of potential businesses or to submit ideas about what businesses they would like to see in available properties.One of the projects listed on Popularise, 1351 H Street could become a bagel shop, a paella bar, or an urban fitness center. What is important, though, is that the public will decide.
In mid-December when Popularise was launched, two properties were available for comment: 1351 H Street, N.E., which is owned by the Millers, and 3418 11th Street, N.W., a commercial property in D.C.’s Columbia Heights neighborhood. By March, the website had expanded to include two more properties, owned by “builders,” Popularise’s name for developers, owners, architects, public officials, or individuals who have been vetted by Popularise’s managers to use the platform. Followers, who can join only by invitation, comment and propose ideas on the properties’ “drawing boards,” pages with information on the properties’ current amenities and ideas for potential uses. Any followers dissatisfied with the ideas on the drawing boards can propose other projects or ideas on which other users can comment and vote. “We’ve created a process to work with people to figure out what they want. We’re not inventing a new city, but we’re building a city that people want,” says Ben Miller.
Their bottom-up approach to development derives directly from the Miller brothers’ experience in—and dissatisfaction with—the real estate industry. Lifelong D.C. residents and owners of their own real estate firm,WestMill Capital, the Millers have become increasingly frustrated with what they see as a disconnect between what consumers want and what developers are building. Citing examples of colleagues who would drive by development sites to get a feel for the surrounding neighborhoods, Ben Miller laments the industry’s focus on quick wins and the bottom line. “The real estate industry is broken,” he says. “It is one of the only industries that has a completely opaque process. Developers have a love/hate relationship with the end user.”
This disconnect results in neighborhoods that are impersonal, inauthentic, and dominated by national chains, he says—a far cry from what makes a community a vibrant place where people want to live. “Real estate developers are also frustrated,” Miller says. “A bank isn’t going to lend [on a project] unless people are behind it.” For the Miller brothers then, Popularise offers not just an opportunity for the public to dictate the development process, but also allows help for real estate companies wanting to make better decisions about what they will build.
The Millers’ focus on the consumer stems from years of observing their father, whose Western Development Corporation developed transformative projects such as D.C.’s Gallery Place in Chinatown, Washington Harbour in Georgetown (across the street from the ULI headquarters), and Potomac Mills mall in the D.C. suburb of Woodbridge, Virginia. The senior Miller found success, in part, through interacting with the public. Embarrassed as a child by his father’s ability to strike up conversations with strangers, it was only later in life that Ben realized his father “was trying to figure out who the consumer was.”
With Popularise, the Miller brothers are attempting to bring their father’s technique into the 21st century by providing an online forum for community engagement. The benefit of using the web, Ben Miller says, is that it is easily accessible and highly visual, and allows users to communicate as much or as little as they like. Miller says his influences include such websites as Pinterest, Wikipedia, and Gilt, all forums in which the content is generated by users but edited by site managers.
Through this curated approach, Miller says, the brothers can manage Popularise’s growth while maintaining the quality of both users and properties that are presented on the site. “We really want to know who it is before we let anyone on the site,” Miller says, explaining the system behind choosing which sites will receive drawing boards. As more property owners and businesses ask to join, the Millers say they will ensure that proposals for sites are feasible before publishing them on the web. Similarly, if users overwhelmingly request that, for example, a bakery be opened in one of the properties, the brothers say they will look for an interested baker.
Use of Popularise will not replace communicating with consumers in person, however. Instead, the website is intended to complement efforts by developers to interact with the community, Miller says. He even hopes that it will bring more people into public meetings. The goal is to “activate the silent majority who up until now haven’t been engaged,” he says.
Only four days into Popularise’s launch in December 2011, the site boasted more than 3,000 visitors, 60 followers, and several membership requests from property owners wanting to use the platform. Within two months, those numbers had jumped to 20,000 visitors and more than 2,000 new members.
What was most surprising, says Miller, was not the positive response, but the diversity of organizations wanting to post on the site. Popularise staff not only heard from architects and developers, like global shopping center groupWestfield, but also from public sector and community organizations, including D.C.’s Department of Transportation and the city’s Advisory Neighborhood Commissions (ANCs), local bodies that advise city government on such issues as transportation, zoning, sanitation, and recreation.
To accommodate the unexpected demand, the Millers decided to expand Popularise to include more than just empty retail properties. Now, rather than simply allowing users to vote on uses for new buildings, Popularise will encourage third-party organizations like the ANCs to ask the public about other site-specific issues, such as height and design preferences. Discussions that that had taken place at public consultations now can happen on the web, Miller says. Third-party users hoping to post on the site will be required to pay a nominal fee, the amount of which is yet to be determined.
Although, as Miller states, “the real estate industry is not typically done online,” Popularise is succeeding by targeting a younger demographic. For example, when users ask to join, the site asks them to list their favorite hangouts. Also, the projects on the website are located in neighborhoods decidedly popular with D.C.’s burgeoning population of twenty-somethings, and the site mentions a need to build “cool, authentic places.”
For the Miller brothers, approaching D.C.’s younger residents is an obvious choice: Ben is 35 years old and Dan is 24. In addition to the advantage of engaging with his own generation, Ben hopes that targeting young users will help Popularise grow. “The younger consumer is a natural early adopter of new technology. They are the cultural leaders of trends,” he says. More important, he thinks young users will identify with the site’s mission to transform the real estate industry. “Young people are frustrated with the status quo,” he says. “The future of American growth is urban, and all these young people are moving to cities. How are we going to use these cities?”
When Miller talks about his ideas for Popularise’s future, he refers to Apple and leaders like Mickey Drexler, former CEO of the Gap and current head of J.Crew—notably entities outside the real estate industry. Drawing from these and other examples, Popularise’s founders are keeping the future of the site open and receptive to change. Besides expanding the site’s functionality to include third-party clients, the founders are exploring partnerships with universities—institutions that would clearly benefit from knowing more about what their users want.
Popularise is now confined to Washington, D.C., but it could expand later to other cities; property owners in New York City, St. Louis, and Aspen, Colorado, have already expressed interest in using the site. The shape and purpose of the site, though, will be determined by what its future users want, Miller says. “The consumer will decide.”