DC developers sharing and caring?
Choose an underutilized building on the website, browse a list of shops, restaurants, bars or other businesses interested in opening there, or suggest your own, then vote "build it!" According to the Popularise website, they work to attract the businesses that get the most votes for that location.
The newly-minted Popularise site begins with two D.C. properties:
- 1351 H Street NE (purchased by Fundrise/AKA WestMill Capital in October for $825K) and;
- 3418 11th Columbia Heights (owned by Park Eleven LLC a subsidiary of N12 Development).
As of this writing, there are 92 "build its" on the H Street property and 24 on the 11th street property, a combined total of 1088 views and 12 comments.
Popularise is headed by brothers and real estate developers Ben and Dan Miller, tech guy Kenny Shinn and Director of Real Estate Brandon Jenkins.
The Miller brothers are founders of WestMill Capital, whose website portfolio includes:
- Blue Ridge Outlets where they'll parnet to re-build/reposition a +500,000 SF enclosed retail shopping center in NC,
- The Powerhouse 8,000 SF retail project adjacent to C&O Canal Georgetown projected for 2012,
- 1207 H Street NE 33,000 SF Autozone-occupied property purchased by WestMill in January 2011 for 3.9M which they intend to develop as a future mixed-use project, and;
- Two leasing projects relating to Western Development Corporation.
WestMill Capital was born in October of 2010, their new development fund seeded last spring with $10M from unamed sources. Prior to creating WestMill, Ben Miller was employed by father and semi-retired D.C. Business Hall of Famer Herbert S. Miller, founder of Western Development Corporation. Ben Miller worked at Western for seven years, two as its President. Dan Miller is a 2010 Wharton Business School grad.
Western Development brought us Washington Harbor, Market Square, Gallery Place and Georgetown Park. A statement on the WestMill Capital website refers to Western Development Corporation as the inventor of "the concept of the value-oriented super-regional mall." The 'Mills Concept' is credited with "reshap[ing] the landscape for mass retail," referencing Florida megaoutlet development Sawgrass Mills. The Mills Corporation was listed on the NYSE with an initial capitalization of $1.3 billion.
Popularise's 'power to the people' and 'down with big development' messages are quite a contrast to the family business model.
Ben Miller says Popularise's goal is to stop great neighborhoods from turning into vanilla clones:
"My time working in big real estate taught me why the wrong things get built. The decision makers are out of touch. The financial incentives are all wrong. I was a clockmaker. I know how the system ticks. Popularise sounds simple--but it will change the fundamental gearing of the real estate system."
Miller's blog portrays the site as a new approach to developing authentic places by using the web to hand development power back to local residents. He claims that the same financial engineering that transformed U.S. food drove similar changes in how its citizens 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," Miller blogs. "While this money brought in 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."
Miller asserts that developers build cookie-cutter projects, don't take risks and base their development decisions primarily on financial analysis that lacks empathy for 'local texture.' The idea of Popularise, he says, is to "turn media into millions of people creating and distributing information themselves."
According to a March 2011 article by The Washington Business Journal, the brothers want to focus on joint ventures with individual businesses rather than massive retail projects. But when asked about future plans, they are unwilling to discuss and a WBJ quote from Dad seems to indicate that the apples may not fall far from the megatree in the end:
"The key to anyone's success is hard work and acting responsibly. And don't read too much into WestMill starting small. I started with small projects and grew quickly into big projects."
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