GW’s incoming sports betting bar is an example of how GW and locals can work together

The sports betting bar and restaurant ExPat will join Western Market later this spring, but the introduction of gambling to Foggy Bottom sparked concerns among residents about gambling addiction, theft and noise. After ExPat’s owner and the Foggy Bottom and West End Advisory Neighborhood Commission reached a settlement agreement, the business received a liquor license with limitations to its daily cash payouts and hours of operation outdoors. The compromise over ExPat is a welcome departure from the difficulty that sometimes comes with bringing change, good or bad, to Foggy Bottom.

ExPat will open because its owner, Ben Sislen, met with the ANC, listened to the concerns of the community and agreed to abide by the restrictions of the settlement agreement. ExPat could have been the latest in a series of scuffles between residents, the University and others over the past, present and future of Foggy Bottom, but it wasn’t. While competing views and interests often pit the University, locals and potential residents against each other, the resolution of ExPat demonstrates how that compromise can build a better Foggy Bottom for everyone. 

The ANC and FBA first hesitated to grant ExPat’s liquor license, fearing that a cocktail of high emotions and cash payouts could provide ample opportunity for criminal activity close to both the Foggy Bottom Campus and private homes. These concerns aren’t unfounded – McFadden’s Restaurant and Saloon of Pennsylvania Avenue, which Complex Magazine dubbed the District’s “douchiest bar,” closed after a man stabbed five people there in December 2014. 

Far from being a local concern, WTOP reported on a similar situation in the Capitol Hill neighborhood in 2020, where residents opposed approving the liquor license application for a similar sports betting bar.

Alongside crime, the potential for noisy customers concerns residents like John George, the president of the Foggy Bottom Association. George said he hoped that “there will be some ability to contain the amount of noise” coming from the bar. 

Meanwhile, Kevin Days, GW’s director of community relations, said at an ANC meeting last month that the University is “very comfortable” with the idea of sports betting near campus.

This isn’t the first time GW and the FBA have split on issues, especially over noise concerns. A 2017 proposal to construct a helipad atop the GW Hospital, which was completed in 2019, divided students and residents. Those for the proposal argued that such flights would save lives, but opponents claimed loud, low-flying helicopters would imperil residents’ lives, particularly in the event of a crash. 

In 2021, members of the FBA failed to stop the University’s planned demolition of the nearly 200-year-old townhouse that then housed the Nashman Center for Civic Engagement and Public Service. A similar move to demolish the century-old Staughton Hall later this year has also earned the confusion and frustration of residents seeking to preserve the neighborhood’s history and character. 

Not every debate over what belongs in Foggy Bottom is literally life and death. Yet battles over sports bars like ExPat or historic buildings still matter to those who live here. And while ExPat may demonstrate the successful melding of different community interests, such an amicable resolution isn’t always the case. 

The FBA has threatened to sue the University and protested its decisions on numerous occasions over the last two decades. While I don’t expect the FBA, the University, students and residents to always see eye to eye, it can feel as though University is obsessed with new development while residents resist even the slightest changes to the neighborhood.

The needs of a prestigious research university with some 26,000 students can’t always meet the desires of individual homeowners’ for a quiet, calm and respectful neighborhood. Even and especially when new development is contentious, we need to be able to find a solution to the disparate wants and needs of the University, students, homeowners, businesses and countless other groups. 

Noting its complex relationship with GW and the need to approach the University directly, FBA members have said “the University can be a positive force in the community.” Between outreach and an online orientation meant to instruct off-campus students about appropriate on- and off-campus conduct, GW knows what being a good neighbor means. 

Days has said that “GW takes its role as a neighborhood institution seriously,” offering locals access to events and benefits alike. Yet the University’s campus remains largely closed to the public due to the pandemic. COVID-19 has complicated GW’s role and its relationship to its nature by reinforcing the University’s private – not public – status. 

Being neighbors isn’t just about physical proximity – it’s an attitude that allows us to find real solutions to real problems. Recognizing that change isn’t all or nothing allows us to navigate the past, present and future of Foggy Bottom. We can have a sports bar like ExPat without becoming the next Las Vegas, open a helipad to save lives without imperiling life on the ground below and even raze historic buildings for new development. 

Change is difficult, but so is maintaining the status quo in perpetuity. Residents, the University and businesses may not always get everything they want from these negotiations, but ExPat tells us that we can bet on a brighter future if we can work together as a community.

Ethan Benn, a sophomore majoring in journalism and mass communication, is an opinions columnist.

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