“If the community has their heart set on one thing, that can be challenging,” he said. “That’s why people usually play tenant decisions close to their vest.”
Though Popularise shows promise — the site has recently signed on buildings in Seattle and Vancouver — some are skeptical that the format can fully disrupt the commercial real estate world.
For one thing, Popularise can’t entirely circumvent the neighborhood meeting process. If a new bar hopes to open on H Street, for example, the decision would still involve local ANC members — some of whom may have no interest in Popularise.
“By going to the ANC, you’re getting exposure to one kind of involved citizen, but by going online, you’re still leaving out a large portion of our community,” said Sharee Lawler, a commissioner for ANC 6a, the group whose jurisdiction includes the H Street property. “We have people who aren’t on e-mail.”
Sleeper, from Crunkcakes, also said the two bakers noticed that some of the voters on the H Street site don’t seem to live in the neighborhood, so “we wonder just how much this process represents our actual community’s desires.”
Then there’s this: Tenants who can pay the highest rents aren’t always the ones most in demand.
“I think it is a good idea, but at the end of the day, the market is going to drive what goes into that space,” said Keith Sellars, president and chief executive of Washington D.C. Economic Partnership. “This can be used with very progressive landlords, but where it will not work is where you have institutional money or buildings.”
At this point, Miller said, he is working only with developers who are open to taking on lower-paying tenants that seem to draw a high level of interest on Popularise.
For his part, Lustine, who is paying the Millers a flat consulting fee in exchange for the Popularise listing, said he is willing to install a tenant that pays a lower rent but has a greater chance of long-term success.
Lustine said that since his building was draped in the black Popularise banner, he has received calls from prospective tenants he might not have heard from otherwise. He doesn’t know whether the Web site will turn him on to a permanent renter faster than a regular agent might, he said, but he’s so far been willing to give the newfangled tool a try.
“Ben and Daniel [Miller] are younger than me and more attuned to what the age group is doing,” said Lustine, whose family has owned the 14th Street building for more than 50 years. “I grew up in the old school of leasing retail space, and they’re taking the rules and turning them upside down.”