Photo by Payton Chung on Flickr.

GGW’s I Wish This Were series of posts imagined better uses for vacant properties and bad public spaces. 2 entrepreneurial DC brothers have taken this concept to the next level, with websites that harness the power of crowdsourcing to help shape neighborhood development.

Ben and Daniel Miller, sons of Gallery Place developer Herbert Miller, created 2 crowd­sourcing websites. Popularise, unveiled in December, lets residents vote on development ideas, and Fundrise, its 2-month-old cousin, lets them invest in businesses and developments.

The services started in DC and are also available for Baltimore, Oklahoma City, Seattle, and Mandurah, Australia, with more cities on the way.

Popularise lets local developers and small businesses post project proposals and receive public input. Users can submit ideas for what they would like to see in these developments, and read ideas submitted by others. If you like someone else’s idea, you can click “Build it!” to vote for it, and the developer may incorporate the ideas that get the most votes.

In addition to developers, property owners may solicit advice from Popularise users. The site lets owners post a chalkboard in front of their properties that asks “What would YOU build here?” or “How would you build your city?” This is another variation on the meme developed in post-Katrina New Orleans, where people were given “I wish this were [blank]” stickers and invited to stick them on boarded-up buildings to send a message to their owners.

The Miller brothers began looking at commercial real estate 2 years ago, relying on traditional funding sources such as private equity firms and accredited investors. But they realized that these investors didn’t really know the neighborhoods they bought into. So they came up with a new business model that relies on small investments from people who live and work around the property in which they choose to take a stake.

Ben Miller cautions developers against taking the word of the majority of Popularise users as final, calling it “a conversation, not an election.” “The most popular girl in school is not necessarily the girl you want to be married to,” he explained. “People may not see that the fifth most popular idea could actually be best for the area.”

The newer site launched by the Miller brothers offers users the chance to actually put their money behind their votes.  Fundrise is a “place-based investment platform.” For even small dollar amounts, people can buy shares of ownership in real estate or businesses. Investors help the kinds of venues they want to get off the ground, as well as hopefully to earn a return.

Fundrise finds business opportunities that they think people in the community will be excited about and manages people’s investments in them, including distribution of dividends and regular financial reporting, plus investor perks. Like stocks and mutual funds, the Securities and Exchange Commission regulates investments in Fundrise projects.

Fundrise’s first project is the creation of a “curated culinary and fashion boutique,” called Marketto, at 1351 H Street NE. Marketto will give many local vendors a place to market their food and clothing. Fundrise has raised $216,300 for the project so far, about 65% of their goal of $325,000. Fundrise will pay dividends to investors from the rent that Marketto pays to building owner Fundrise 1351.

If the Popularise and Fundrise concept expands, it will give citizens the power to be proactive when it comes to what is built in their city, rather than just reactive to whatever big developers propose. With tools like this, people can actually shape the kind of development they want in their cities. For example, if you want to see a small healthy food market near you instead of a mini-mart, you can get like-minded fellow citizens together to invest in one.

People in our region increasingly choose vibrant, walkable places that are connected by public transportation and bicycle networks. If more developers and businesses follow the Miller brothers’ lead, neighborhood people-power can further drive the decision making progress, and more residents will get what they want.

Malcolm Kenton lives in the DC’s NoMa neighborhood. Hailing from Greensboro, NC and a graduate of Guilford College (BA) and George Mason University (MA, Transportation Policy), he is a consultant and writer on transportation, travel, and sustainability topics and a passionate advocate for world-class passenger rail and other forms of sustainable mobility and for incorporating nature and low-impact design into the urban fabric. The views he expresses on GGWash are his own.