It’s a simple question, “What would you build in your city?”, but a new Washington, D.C. startup thinks it could transform the traditional patterns of real-estate development.
Popularise acquires vacant properties and asks the local community to vote on what business should open in that location. Businesses that are interested in opening in the location are added to the list. Of course, if you’re not feeling the ideas, you can suggest your own. Whichever business get the most votes gets to open their store. The idea is to make real-estate development more about what the community wants, says co-founder Ben Miller:
We created Popularise as a new way to approach developing authentic places, by using the web to give development power back to local residents.
And it’s an idea that they think could start to shift the current development model:
My goal, and I would love your help, is to pull the curtain back on the real estate industry in the same way Food, Inc. did for the agro-business and food industry. Because in many ways, the same financial engineering that transformed how we eat also drove similar changes in how we live, work, dine, and shop.
Basically, real estate development has become dominated by huge investment funds and public real estate companies—most of whom have more than a billion dollars in assets.
While this money brought a lot of benefits, these corporations just aren’t based in the neighborhoods they develop. They’re out of touch with what people in those neighborhoods want, need, and use.
So they build cookie-cutter projects. It’s a lot easier to repeat a past success than to risk something new.
Popularise currently has two properties in Washington, D.C. One property along the up-and-coming H Street corridor has the choice of a pizzeria, a bar, and a bagel shop. But the leading vote-getter, for now, is something that’s not as common among the bars and restaurants that currently line the strip, a men’s clothing store.
It’s a simple but fascinating idea that could captivate the imagination of the neighborhood and get the community invested in the decision-making process — a good thing for any new business joining the neighborhood. And while it’s hard to say how much of the community will actually get involved in the process — or if it will be able to attract a representative cross-section of the community — Popularise is making their presence known in the neighborhood. The “What would you build here?” sign in the photo above, it actually covers the vacant storefront. If you walk through the neighborhood you can’t miss it.
And with 10 million vacant properties throughout U.S. cities, it seems like an idea that could spread and bring development that is valuable to communities.