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D.C. acquires ‘Dave Thomas Circle’ on New York Avenue through eminent domain

“Dave Thomas Circle” sits at the intersection of Florida and New York avenues NE. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)
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D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser is planning a $35 million overhaul for a hazardous traffic intersection that has long infuriated legions of Washington motorists who know it by the landmark at its core — a Wendy’s fast-food franchise.

Bowser and D.C. transportation officials said Tuesday that they used eminent domain to acquire the property at the center of First Street NE and New York and Florida avenues, a crossroads that Washingtonians refer to as “Dave Thomas Circle” in mocking tribute to the Wendy’s founder.

“Almost every Washingtonian has their own Dave Thomas Circle horror story,” the mayor said in a statement announcing the $13.1 million purchase of the property.

The roundabout is ranked among D.C.’s top 10 most hazardous intersections, officials said. About 80 percent of the crashes there involve sideswipes or rear-end collisions, officials said, suggesting extreme driver confusion.

The Bowser administration plans to remake the intersection to create two-way traffic along First Street and Florida Avenue NE and add protected bike lanes and three public parks.

Some regulars on Tuesday bemoaned the loss of a convenient burger joint and an only-in-Washington oddity.

But others who live nearby were thrilled.

“We’ve witnessed a lot of violent crashes there,” said Conor Shaw, an attorney and president of the civic association for the adjoining neighborhood of Eckington. He estimated that cars have crashed into the Wendy’s franchise “at least five times in the last two years. . . . There was even a car that went straight into the dining area of the restaurant.”

No one was inside at the time, he said.

A receptionist at Bernstein Management Corp., owner of the Wendy’s parcel, said the company had no comment.

In a city of national monuments, the intersection is more of a local conversation piece, with its numerous lanes, confusing traffic patterns and a vista of incongruities — a storage facility over here, new condos over there and Wendy’s $4 lunch specials smack in the middle.

“It’s a piece of the city everyone knows,” said Mahmoud Lababidi, 37, a software engineer who drove in the snow from Dupont Circle to pick up lunch on Tuesday after learning of the mayor’s announcement.

He brought along his camera to take photographs.

“I want to document it before it’s all gone,” he said. “It has been the story of D.C. — everything keeps disappearing.”

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“When I first saw it was on New York Avenue, I said, ‘Oh my God!’ I was so impressed because of the name, ‘New York,’ ” Nitma recalled. “The Wendy’s helps a lot of people refill our bodies. How can you transform everything into a park? We have so many parks.”

Catherine Hall, 35, who lives a few blocks away, said she feels no sense of impending loss. “It’s too dangerous here,” she said, walking through the Wendy’s parking lot on her way to the store with a friend. “I’ve seen plenty of accidents, people getting shot. It’s time to start over.”

[What’s a Wendy’s doing there? The story of Washington’s weirdest traffic circle.]

Wendy’s has been at the intersection since the mid-1980s, on a wedge of land that borders a major gateway leading downtown. An average of 80,000 vehicles pass through daily, according to District Department of Transportation estimates.

In a 2019 community survey, more than 80 percent of Eckington residents said fixing the intersection was the highest or a high priority for them, second only to preventing and reducing crime in the neighborhood, according to the civic association.

The Advisory Neighborhood Commission for the area adopted a resolution supporting the fixes, and a Change.org petition in favor of the plan obtained nearly 400 signatures.

D.C. Council member Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5), who represents the area, sent a letter to Bowser two years ago calling on the city to use eminent domain to fix “a failing intersection” that “has posed a traffic nightmare for residents.”

“This is long overdue,” he said Tuesday. “Fixing Dave Thomas Circle will make residents safer, reduce traffic congestion, and create more green space.”

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Asked how he navigates the intersection, McDuffie said that his strategy is simple.

“Since I was 16, I’ve avoided Dave Thomas Circle,” he said. “Except when I needed a chicken sandwich after midnight, when very few other places were open.”

With its many traffic lights and turns, the roundabout can be the Rubik’s Cube of intersections, bewildering drivers as they traverse First Street and New York Avenue to head eastbound on Florida Avenue or out of the city toward Annapolis.

According to DDOT, a total of 727 crashes occurred in five intersections in the project area between 2014 and 2018. The number of crashes in the project area increased at an average annual rate of about 12 percent those years, more than twice the citywide average of 5 percent, said Everett Lott, DDOT’s interim director. He cited as factors for the increase the numerous access points at the roundabout, combined with road conditions conducive to speeding and driver distraction.

“We are taking a hard look at how we can get that number down,” he said. “That’s why it really is important that we are taking some measures now to make the improvements.”

Officials hope the protected bike lanes encourage motorists to abide by speed regulations, which studies have shown they routinely flout.

Construction is expected to begin next year and last 18 months. Bowser has committed $35 million for the project, which should include the land acquisition, design and construction, officials said.

Lott described the deal to acquire the Wendy’s property as amicable.

City officials said they are working with the franchise to help it relocate.

Dwight Pauling, a FedEx delivery driver, walked across the street from his company’s headquarters Tuesday to order lunch — the “4 for $4” — including a burger, fries, chicken nuggets and a soda.

“Ah now, c’mon man,” he said, shaking his head, when told that the restaurant’s days are numbered. “It’s very convenient for the workers.”

Then he headed back to work.

Michael Brice-Saddler contributed to this report.

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