News & Politics

A Local Web Site Lets the Community Decide Which Business Should Appear Next on H Street

Real estate developers Ben and Dan Miller look to voters to choose the new tenant for their vacant H Street property.

Suggestions for what should occupy the space on H Street, Northeast, include a clothing store, a shop for booze-infused cupcakes, and a trampoline bar. Photograph courtesy of Westmill Capital.

The story itself might not be new: Two Washington real estate scions break from their famous and successful developer father to set up shop on their own. But when it comes to Ben Miller, 35, and Dan Miller, 25, how they chose to set up shop is anything but ordinary. The brothers are trying to reinvent new neighborhood development by using the Web and the community to pick a tenant for the vacant space they own at 1351 H Street, Northeast. Their website, Popularise, asks the question: “If you had the power to build a new place in your neighborhood, what would you build?”

After a month of public voting and an estimated 1,000 votes, there are at least a few dozen proposals, ranging from the expected (a variety of bars and restaurants) to the highly unusual (a trampoline bar). Three distinct frontrunners have emerged, in this order: The H Street Joodlum, an “event space” with food, drink, and a deejay; a flagship store for DC-based clothing design company Durkl; and RedRocks Pizzeria, a restaurant specializing in wood-fired pizza that started in Columbia Heights. In fourth place is Crunkcakes, which produces “badass” cupcakes made with “top-quality hooch.” Shaun Sharkey of Joodlum just posted his proposed project in the past week and has jumped out in front. Lucas Pierce of Durkl obviously prefers not to be outdistanced by Joodlum but says, “We’re so happy it’s no longer Durkl versus pizza.”

The Millers will end the voting in March or April, but until then they hope the response will grow substantially. “Initially you get [voters] who focus on real estate blogs, and followers of certain companies and tenants,” says Ben. “We’re trying to get deeper, to the rest of the community, to people who never thought there was a possibility of being involved in how something gets built.”

Ben and Dan grew up in commercial real estate development. Their father, Herb Miller, owns the Georgetown-based Western Development Corporation, and developed Potomac Mills, Georgetown Park, Washington Harbour, Gallery Place, and Market Square, among other projects. The brothers started their own development company, Westmill Capital, which Ben says focuses on “smaller and more local projects that are neighborhood-driven.” He believes “big money” is the enemy of neighborhood development, mentioning as an example the area around Nationals stadium (where none of the Millers are invested). “You see what happens when big industry builds neighborhoods and it’s soulless,” he says.

On the other hand, he believes 14th Street has been developed by people who care about neighborhoods. “It’s got soul,” he says. (Ben lives on 14th Street, and Dan lives one block over on 15th.)

The H Street space is two stories and 4,250 square feet. Ben won’t put a rent on the building—“it depends on the build-out”—but will say that commercial property in the neighborhood generally goes for $30 to $40 a square foot, compared with $55 to $66 on 14th Street and twice that amount in Georgetown. The building has been vacant or underused since the 1950s, according to the Millers’ Web site, which states: “We plan to completely renovate the facade and interior. The key is to transform the building into a use that works during the day and the night.”

Ben sees H Street as a unique piece of Washington. “[It] doesn’t want to be 14th Street. It’s more bohemian, younger, more like Brooklyn than like 14th Street, which allows it to be really interesting for Washington. It doesn’t feel like the rest of the city.” The Millers, through Western Development, own a whole city block nearby, but Ben says it is under lease for the foreseeable future.

Between now and the final decision, Ben is meeting with prospective tenants—including, so far, the three frontrunners. “We’ll meet with anybody who’s got a great idea,” he says, adding that the courtesy includes hardhat tours.

The big question is obvious: Will the public vote be the final say? “If we just wanted to have our view, we wouldn’t have done this,” says Ben. “It’s a hybrid.” But he admits the tenant who gets the lease will have to be both popular and viable. “Having support on the Web doesn’t mean you can open a business.” But you can dream. “The whole thing we’re about is activating the young generation to build the city,” he says.