First things first. There’s a Wendy’s in the middle of the intersection. Hard to get around that.
It’s been there since the mid-’80s, on a wedge of land bordered by First Street NE and Florida and New York avenues, at a major gateway to Washington, D.C. Surrounding the Wendy’s is a “virtual traffic circle,” a polite way to refer to this urban aneurysm — a pair of triangles, really, with a roundabout movement forced upon them.
Take any side of it and plot the agony: The desperate dashed curve across six lanes of New York (Jesus take the wheel!); the pummeled yellow pylons on First, a memorial to driver perplexity. If you want to stay on Florida eastbound, you must make three turns (good luck finding the lane you need) and endure three signals. All to stay on the street you wanted to stay on.
“The chaotic dance of cars around Dave Thomas circle drives one of the devil’s great engines of human misery,” computer engineer Brian Holcomb tweeted a few years ago.
That’s what the locals call it: Dave Thomas Circle, in honor of the jovial, short-sleeved founder of the fast-food chain at the center of this mess.
PR consultant James Faeh resides in the 12th-floor corner apartment at the eastern edge of the intersection. His living room wall is mostly windows, so he has a panoramic view of the predicament. One night he watched a caravan of emergency vehicles zoom east down Florida and hit the circle.
“And they split apart like a herd of cheetahs trying to get some prey,” Faeh says. “One drove over the median and through the bushes of the Wendy’s. One circled around New York Avenue, and the other one turned left and went into oncoming traffic.”
Faeh’s long-range view is beautiful: the glory of the sunset, the precision of distant monuments, the surety of the horizon.
“And then you look down and see the cluster,” he says. “It’s almost as if someone got drunk while playing ‘Sim City.’ ”
We don't think Pierre L'Enfant was drunk in 1791 when he plotted Washington as a grid of streets, shot through with diagonal avenues. But he stopped the grid at the cliffs and hills that surrounded the central city — and that left a dangling diagonal over on the northeastern flank, unnamed and unfinished. By 1861, city planners had given it the default name of Boundary Street. So as east-west O Street and north-south First Street reached the terminus of Boundary Street, in accordance with L'Enfant's plan, an orphaned triangle of land was born.
"It feels like he just gave up," says Scott W. Berg, author of the L'Enfant biography "Grand Avenues: The Story of the French Visionary Who Designed Washington, D.C." "There's a lot of intersections in his plan, but along the edges there's all kinds of super-weird places in D.C. . . . To make some intersections beautiful and significant, other intersections will just have to be left over. This is the result."
For years it remained an untamed place where cascading creeks collided and burrowed underground. Then in 1878, as Washington began to sprawl into a metropolis, a man named Michael Esch was issued a building permit for a two-story brick dwelling on the triangle, now known as Square 709. Boundary Street was renamed Florida Avenue in 1890, after landowners complained that the original name sounded too sinister. Esch opened a florist’s shop, and by 1904 an electric trolley line and a railroad track had converged mere feet from the property, to serve the outposts of Eckington and Bladensburg. Already, the intersection had become busy and dangerous, a place to pass through, or around.
The brick building became a station for the Washington Railway and Electric Co. when it decided in 1908 to soften a dangerous curve by rerouting its lines through the triangle. But as the steam engine gave way to the motorcar in the 1920s, the building found another new life: Thomas J. Crowell’s fuel and auto body shop. A wash and polish cost $2.50. By 1949 it was a Texaco station that had a pinball machine inside.
It was the ongoing story of America, in a triangle of misbegotten land: a place between present and future, downtown and out-of-town, between where you are vs. where you want to be. Flowers gave way to railroads, gas gave way to fast food.
The place that would become Dave Thomas Circle “isn’t necessarily a mistake on a map,” says Berg, the L’Enfant biographer, “but it might as well be a wrinkle in space-time.”
Today the glowing, fry-colored marquee is the de facto greeting for anyone coming into the capital from the east. It does not say "Welcome to Washington," or "Behold, the Majestic Seat of the Republic." It says:
W ARM UPWITH
The Baconator® is a 950-calorie glump of beef and bacon that is grilled on the spot that L’Enfant built. With the gentrification of Eckington to the north, the opening of Union Market to the east and the rise of NOMA to the south, the area around Dave Thomas Circle has become as much a destination as a place to pass through.
Yet the one-time boundary and full-time thoroughfare is now also a barrier — to economic development and to the gentrifying neighborhoods that surround it. To walk its perimeter is to be bombarded by bad vibes and aesthetic disappointments.
“This is a major entrance to the city.”
Bundled against the cold, architect Stephen Wright stands across from the Wendy’s, at the southwestern corner of Dave Thomas Circle. He works just south of it, in NoMa, and tries to avoid it at any cost.
"It's confusing," Wright says. "Once you figure it out, it's still confusing for everyone else."
Before it was turned into a virtual circle, the busy intersection of New York and Florida was already a problem — ranked the District’s seventh most-accident-prone in a study from 2006. Florida was a straight shot then, and with interstate drivers treating New York Avenue like the freeway, pedestrians were often caught in the crossfire.
The 2006 study suggested that New York Avenue could be elevated over or tunneled under Florida, or that a true traffic circle could be constructed at the intersection of the two. That same year, the National Capital Planning Commission suggested Wendy’s be replaced with a proper monument — to someone other than Dave Thomas.
None of this happened. In 2010 the District Department of Transportation rejiggered the triangle into the traffic roundabout that exists today, making the Wendy’s even more of a focal point.
"It's about time D.C. honored one of our nation's greatest heroes," wrote a commenter on Greater Greater Washington at the time. "Where's the beef? It's right here."
With this new traffic pattern, the number of traffic-related injuries went down but the number of crashes went up. As did congestion and confusion.
“I can’t remember what the last iteration of the circle was,” says neighborhood commissioner Heather Edelman, whose district abuts New York. “God, I know it sucked. But then I almost feel like this one sucks worse.”
“It’s sort of everybody’s favorite thing to hate,” acknowledges Sam Zimbabwe, chief project delivery officer for DDOT. Still, “I think the virtual circle design is a lot more straightforward, and safer overall, for pedestrians.”
Over 70,000 vehicles navigate the circle each weekday: Penske trucks, cement mixers, school buses, a helpless gray Porsche marooned by ill-timed traffic lights in the middle of New York and First.
McKinley High School students skitter across it from the NoMa Metro stop. Pedestrians sometimes pause to watch a particularly harrowing traffic situation play out. Panhandlers frogger their way between cars, taking advantage of red lights that last up to 90 seconds.
The drama on the road is countered by the banality of surroundings: the homely butt of the vaguely named Department of Human Services, the glower of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, whose curving, 30-foot-tall concrete barrier gives a cold shoulder to the circle.
Wright, the architect who works nearby, points to the crest of New York Avenue, sloping down from what used to be the boonies.
"You've just come over the bridge, past public art, and you come to this," he says. "It's like, holy crap. What do you do now?"
There’s only one thing to do.
Go to the middle of it.
Go to Wendy’s for lunch.
The Yelp reviews are generally unkind.
“This is quite possibly one of the wackiest Wendy’s on the East coast.” (Sept. 2011)
“For your own sanity, just don’t do this.” (Sept. 2014)
“This place is absolutely ratchet.” (April 2017)
Yes, the Wendy’s has been sporadically shuttered by city inspectors, as recently as 2015 for “insects, rodents and other pests” — but it’s serene compared to the slow hurricane of traffic around it. Most of the action comes through the drive-through. A cheerful employee named Crystal goes table to table asking patrons if they’d like water. The TVs play muted ESPN. Comcast technicians, traffic cops and other solo lunchers silently study their french fries and phones as if they’re in a library. A middle-aged white man and a black teenager pool their pocket change to buy a homeless man a Dr Pepper.
“Worst intersection I can think of,” says D.C. Water employee John Cox after finishing lunch in the eye of the storm.
Wendy’s has been the intersection’s one constant over the past 33 years. Today the franchise is owned by NPC Quality Burgers Inc. The land, worth $5 million, has been owned since 2006 by the Bernstein Management Corp.
It’s “a high-volume restaurant” and “an important location,” says Wendy’s spokeswoman Heidi Schauer.
Some neighborhood politicians and business developers want it gone.
“Almost anyone I know is like, ‘Eminent-domain that sucker and move on,’ ” says one local elected official who was granted anonymity to speak bluntly. “This is not difficult.”
In April, the Department of Transportation unveiled five new concepts for the next fix, which would install more green space and pedestrian-friendly passages. Some would directly join Eckington Place to First Street NE, currently separated by a severe dogleg around the Wendy’s parking lot. Two of the concepts involve demolishing the Wendy’s.
But choosing, funding and implementing one of them would happen years down the road, if at all — and alterations to streets within L’Enfant’s original plan require special review.
Says the Wendy’s spokeswoman: “We look forward to successfully operating here for many years to come.”
There you have it. Pierre L’Enfant drew a triangle 226 years ago and now we’re stuck with a fast-food outlet in the middle of a major intersection, and a problem that may never be solved.
But for sanity’s sake, the next time you’re stuck in the middle of New York Avenue — besieged by honking drivers and profound anxiety — try thinking of Dave Thomas Circle as a feature instead of a glitch.
Washington is one of the most exactingly planned cities in the country — from its elegant avenues and roundabouts, to its intricate height limits and sweeping Mall — and yet here is the chipped tooth that gives the town some character, and hints at a grittier, improvised past.
“I can explain to you in great detail why the White House is where it is, why Dupont Circle is where it is,” says Berg, the L’Enfant biographer. “The romance of [Dave Thomas Circle] is that it’s inexplicable.”