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Turning to the public for development ideas

Filed by KOSU News in Business, Feature, Local News.
July 18, 2012
 

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As neighborhoods in Oklahoma City become more than a collection of buildings, how do you create community? There’s the standard development path – buy a building, figure out what belongs there, and wait for the customers to stream in. Or you can turn to a new online tool that aims to make the decision more collaborative…

It almost looks out of place, lying on the south side of Northwest 16th street in the middle of Oklahoma City’s revitalized Plaza District. There’s retail stores, offices, a bar that are so well put together; they’re ready to go out on a Saturday night. This one, with red letters at the top blaring out COIN LAUNDRY, looks like it just got back from a weeklong camping trip without a single shower…

You see impossibly dirty floors, and in the middle of talking to Kristen Vails, Executive Director of the Plaza District, a pigeon flew by.

A couple months ago, a developer got together with the President of the District’s Board of Directors to purchase the laundromat. But instead of coming in with an idea, they wanted to hear from the community.

“The four years I’ve been in the district, not a week goes by without someone saying what they think should be in the district. So I knew it was out there, and I knew people cared and wanted their voice to be heard,” said Kristen.

So Kristen put the property up on the website Popularise

“Very little engagement typically from neighborhoods, most young people aren’t involved, most people have jobs, most people are very busy. And so what Popularise does is augments the off line community engagement with a whole new kind of community engagement that’s online.”

Ben Miller and his brother Dan founded the company. They saw their developer father working a bar, restaurant, or just out on the street to get that one valuable nugget for a space. Why not make that easier?

“It’s a little bit like Wikipedia, where you have a lot of people collaborating on writing an encyclopedia. Here you have people collaborating and giving ideas for how to build their neighborhood.”

That’s all well and good, but John Belt is far from sold on the idea as a way to find a tenant. He’s a developer in Oklahoma City, part of the transformation of the Paseo District

“You need to know enough about what you’re doing to make those decisions on your own. You don’t have to go out and make it a community wide census. That’s my view.”

Other developers weren’t so inspired either, saying too many people could just throw ideas against the wall, or building, in this case. Belt labels it a promotional tactic…

“This is just putting a name on that inquiry, is all it amounts to to me.”

Ben Miller said, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, I think one of them was, somebody wanted like 8-thousand square feet of cupcakes. I would say some people would like to see 8-thousand square feet of cupcakes but I don’t know how viable that is.”

So Ben Miller acknowledges the system isn’t perfect, but asks why not? If you’re a developer, you can put your property up on Popularise, and see what’s out there. Then you try to work things out…if they do, great. If not, pass Go and collect 200 hundred dollars.

Let’s bring this back to the Coin Laundry…

So all these people went online, checked out 38 different ideas, and voted. The winner? The Coin Laundry Café, kind of an upscale breakfast place.

“We are basically people that have never put a business plan together before, and we had a serious meeting with the business owners. And I don’t know if that’s something you could do putting a plan together, if it wasn’t for this site.”

Kim Hickerson and her team didn’t make the cut. The developers are now entering the final stages, in negotiations with two groups. One idea is largely modeled after the Cafe, and without the voting, Kristen says it might not have made it this far.

“Because you never really know. I know my community very well and there were a lot of things that were really interesting to me that I never thought about before. You think you know a place but you don’t really know it, you have to ask and you have to be really involved.”

Kim walks away knowing the idea would have worked if only for one thing. And that doesn’t bother her.

“Well it’s still inspiring. It’s not like I went out and tried, I knew that financing was an aspect of it. I didn’t, in six weeks to put all that together is a big feat. And so it’s interesting to see how far you can come.”

The washers and dryers have been ripped out and a pigeon has set up shop in the Coin Laundry. A lease could be signed in weeks with one of the two finalists, and a restaurant operating as early as next January. Kristen says without Popularise, it’s hard to imagine such energy and excitement surrounding what is still a dirty, dusty building.

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