The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The end of ‘Dave Thomas Circle’ arrives as Wendy’s shuts doors at an infamous D.C. intersection

The city used eminent domain to acquire the property, where it is planning a $35 million remake of the treacherous roundabout

The Wendy's in D.C.'s most confusing intersection is shutting its doors. The Post's Hannah Jewell spoke to locals about their memories and mixed feelings. (Video: The Washington Post)
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A previous version of this article misstated the length of time that Rolonda Woody has been coming to Wendy’s. She has been patronizing the restaurant since she was 18 years old, not for 18 years. The article has been corrected.

The Wendy’s at a crossroads that Washingtonians refer to as “Dave Thomas Circle” in tribute to the fast-food chain’s founder served its last customers Tuesday, marking a finale for a perplexing spot that had risen to become a city landmark.

The city used eminent domain to acquire the property at the center of First Street NE and New York and Florida avenues, where it is planning a $35 million remake of the treacherous intersection that for years has tested the patience of drivers and pedestrians alike. The city is expected to unveil more details this fall of what the next iteration will look like, but it has made assurances that the quirky gathering spot will be safer for those who traverse it.

“It’s exciting that we’re reaching this big milestone in what will hopefully become a safer intersection,” said Conor Shaw, an attorney and president of the civic association for the Eckington neighborhood.

The line of customers stretched outside the door early this week, and traffic backed up as motorists entered the drive-through. Trending social media in Washington contained references to Dave Thomas Circle, which officially is named neither for Dave Thomas nor a circle. Some residents marked the occasion with a Wendy’s Frosty, while others recalled survival experiences amid the confusing traffic patterns.

“End of an inconvenient era,” read one tweet. “RIP Dave Thomas Circle. You were beautiful,” said another. And finally: “The evil is defeated.”

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

The landmark is a study in traffic confusion. For years, residents, drivers, planners and elected officials have talked about fixing it.

Traffic accidents are common, officials say. Some drivers say they can’t make sense of the intersection. Pedestrians and cyclists say they dread it.

The site had also become popular for neighbors to watch Sunday football or grab a midnight bite after a night of dancing nearby. It was a breakfast stop for commuters into downtown and a pit stop for tourists.

James Alston, 63, a native Washingtonian, stood at the door Tuesday waiting for the dining room to open for lunch at 10:30 a.m. He had walked 1½ miles from his home in the H Street Northeast corridor to buy the Big Bacon Cheddar, wanting one last meal at the restaurant he had frequented before going to clubs along New York Avenue.

“Gentrification is here. I have seen all these changes,” he said, pointing to the shiny buildings across the street in the NoMa neighborhood. “I have seen Burger King go. I have seen Roy Rogers go. Hardee’s is gone. This was the last fast-food restaurant here outside McDonalds.”

While some regulars bemoaned the loss of a convenient burger joint and an only-in-Washington oddity, others who live nearby were thrilled.

“I think it’s wonderful because it’s been obstructing traffic in the area for years,” said Emmet Potts, who, with girlfriend Erin Bullock, waited in the drive-through one last time for $1.99 croissants to mark the occasion. “This whole location was just like a big middle finger to the city for such a long time. So we thought it’d be really funny to come in, kind of celebrate their last day.”

Croissants were out of stock, they were told. “A sausage, egg and cheese biscuit is coming. And coffee,” Bullock said as the pair waited at the window.

In announcing Friday that Wendy’s will leave the premises by Sept. 30, Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) tweeted “onward to a less confusing and safer intersection.”

Amid the announcement of the $13.1 million property purchase in February, city officials said they were working with Wendy’s to help it relocate. As of this week, it is unclear where or whether the restaurant had found a new home.

In a statement, Wendy’s corporate headquarters said it was “forced” to shut its doors and is “working through the Court process to ensure that we are compensated appropriately for the restaurant relocation, and for our lost name and business association between the Dave Thomas Circle and the Wendy’s brand.”

“The Wendy’s restaurant at Dave Thomas Circle has been a beloved part of the brand and has served members of the community and commuters for decades,” the statement continued. “The name ‘Dave Thomas Circle’ is synonymous with Wendy’s and honors our founder, making it one of the most special and recognizable restaurants in our portfolio and a highly valuable asset of The Wendy’s Company.”

Wendy’s has been at the location since the mid-1980s, at a gateway into the nation’s capital. An average of 65,000 vehicles pass through the intersection daily, according estimates from the District Department of Transportation.

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

It is also one of the most infamous traffic choke points in the city, as commuters, mostly from Maryland, head into and out of downtown.

According to DDOT, 727 crashes occurred at five intersections within the Dave Thomas Circle project area between 2014 and 2018. More than one-third occurred at the Florida Avenue-New York Avenue intersection, while nearly 40 percent were at the First Street-New York Avenue intersection, which includes southbound Florida Avenue traffic.

DDOT Director Everett Lott cited factors such as numerous access points, road conditions that are conducive to speeding, and driver distraction. On Tuesday, he said the city is wrapping up the redesign of the road. Construction is expected to begin in late spring and last 18 months.

“This is the one intersection that comes up the most when we hear about confusion,” Lott said. “We hear about sideswipes; we hear about rear-end crashes.”

The changes, including the addition of protected bike lanes, could serve as speed-calming measures, officials said. Residents, however, say they will push the city to include changes to speed limits and bring more automated enforcement in the corridor.

The posted speed limit along New York Avenue is 30 mph, while it is 25 mph along Florida Avenue. City studies show drivers often travel well above those limits.

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

The city’s plan is to simplify the intersection for all modes of transportation, officials said, with more visible crosswalks, bike lanes, three park spaces, and a reconfiguration to create better north-south and east-west connectivity.

Residents say they hope the final plan for the intersection will fulfill the city’s promise of maximizing safety. In a July letter to DDOT, the Advisory Neighborhood Commission that represents the area asked for a reduction in the number of lanes on New York and Florida avenues and alterations to the width of streets to better match speed limits.

Shaw, who has documented issues at the site on his Twitter account @fixCircle, which he created in 2016 after he moved to the neighborhood, said crashes have resulted in significant injury or death in recent years.

“I’m not celebrating that Wendy’s is leaving, but I’m very excited that a much safer intersection seems to be coming soon,” Shaw said. “It is a real obstacle to anybody who has to travel through it.”

By lunchtime Tuesday, the line inside grew as regulars thanked workers and new customers came for free Frostys to mark the occasion.

“One last $4 value meal,” a customer shouted, laughing with a cashier. “Thaaaaaank you!” another said. “Are they going to place you in another Wendy’s?”

Behind the counter, Crystal Martin, known to regulars as Ms. Crystal, smiled: “Yes, they are gonna hook us up.”

Rolonda Woody, 56, has been coming to Wendy’s since she was 18. In her 20s, she would grab a sandwich and fries after a night of clubbing on New York Avenue. In recent years, with her office a couple of blocks away, she picked up lunch so frequently she got to know the workers.

“Byeeeee! I love you all. You all take care,” she shouted, leaving with a burger and small Frosty one last time.