Concept design for Dave Thomas Circle. Image by ULI Washington.

The intersection of Florida and New York Avenue, or “Dave Thomas Circle” as it is colloquially known, is dangerous and confounding to all who use it. The District has been trying to figure out how to unravel this traffic nightmare and make it safer for people traveling via all modes. A team of experts proposes slowing cars, adding safer links for cyclists and pedestrians, and putting a lot more emphasis on the central public space.

In June, the NoMa Business Improvement District and NoMa Parks Foundation sponsored and hosted an Urban Land Institute (ULI) Technical Assistance Panel which spent two days studying the intersection. These panels are a resource for regional planning entities to receive “honest, unbiased answers to land use and real estate questions that defy easy solutions.”

The panel’s report, which was released in August, reimagines the intersection as a public space that connects neighborhoods rather than dividing them. ULI’s vision for the intersection would prioritize the safe passage of pedestrians and cyclists traveling north/south and east/west and would create spaces that would draw people to the intersection rather than turn them away. The big question now is how many of ULI’s recommendations DDOT will adopt.

The panel’s starting point was Concept 6, which has become DDOT’s working plan for the intersection. At an open house this April, DDOT laid out an accelerated timeline for the project that would see construction start in the spring of 2021. That timeline is ambitious, but there are reasons to take it seriously. In June, the DC Council approved the mayor’s request for $35 million in funding over six years to redesign Dave Thomas Circle.

DDOT's Concept 6 for Dave Thomas Circle. Image by DDOT.

The ULI panel proposes major pedestrian and cyclist safety enhancements

The ULI panel adopted a “safety first” principle, and it resulted in a refreshingly matter-of-fact adoption of elements that pedestrian and bicycle advocates in the city have long called for. If DDOT adopted them in whole, Concept 6 could evolve into a truly state-of-the-art facility. Here’s a quick rundown of the biggest improvements:

1. Include crosswalks on every side of every intersection.

The panel proposed adding the missing crosswalk at First Street and New York Avenue and straightening the north-south bike lane so that it doesn’t jog back and forth across First Street and Eckington Place. The panel recommended that these crosswalks feature generous timing to ensure pedestrians don’t get stranded at medians and leading pedestrian phases, in which the pedestrian signal turns green before the vehicle signals do so drivers are more likely to see and stop for people walking.

2. Extend the Florida Avenue NE protected bikeway through the intersection to points west.

From a cycling standpoint, the most important missing feature of Concept 6 is its lack of an east-west route through the intersection. Such a path would close a major gap in the bike lane network between the protected bikeway DDOT is installing on Florida Avenue NE and the Q and R street one-way bike lanes that currently dead-end at Florida Avenue NW.

Concept 6’s proposal to add a protected bikeway around the southeast corner of the intersection next to the ATF building is aesthetically pleasing but adds relatively little to the protected bike lane network. A cyclist coming up First Street can access Florida Avenue and the MBT trail via the M street NE protected bikeway. Local organizations including the Eckington Civic Association and ANC 6E have asked DDOT to close that gap.

3. Manage automobile speed with road design and enforcement.

The panel recommended that speed cameras be deployed in both directions to deter speeding—a factor in many of the violent crashes that have occurred at the intersection. It also recommended some design changes that would help slow vehicles, like eliminating exclusive right-turn lanes and the addition of visual cues on New York Avenue to give drivers the perception that they are travelling faster than they are (and therefore encourage them to slow down).

4. Pilot off-peak parking on New York Avenue.

One of the panel’s most intriguing (and perhaps least-obvious) safety proposals was to explore off-peak parking on New York Avenue. As with many of our streets that are designed for peak vehicle use during the AM and PM rush hours, the road is most unsafe not when it is full, but rather when it is empty.

Off-peak parking is a cheap way to narrow the road at times when vehicle volume doesn’t demand the entire right-of-way. A narrower road encourages safer speeds. Parked vehicles also enhance safety (and perceived safety) by providing a buffer between pedestrians and vehicle lanes.

Plus, the new curbside space could conceivably be used for food trucks that are popular in NoMa. The rapid development of property near the circle suggests that a pop-up rideshare drop off/pick up zone could also be a good use of space

Dave Thomas Circle today. Image by airbus777 licensed under Creative Commons.

Let’s create a vibrant public space that connects neighborhoods

A major component of the Panel’s work was to envision how the spaces created by Concept 6 could be assets to nearby communities. These portions of the report have less to do with recommending changes to DDOT’s working plan and more to do with creating a vision for public space that is compatible with the overarching plan.

The circle was long ago identified by NoMa BID as an opportunity for a “gateway” art installation, much like the chicken and egg sculptures that the BID recently installed at N Street and New York Avenue, except on a grander scale.

Opportunities for programming at Dave Thomas Circle. Image by ULI Washington.

Doing justice to the ULI panel’s ideas for placemaking is an impossible task, so I’ll stick to a few big observations.

The first is that they envisioned a place that could be an attractive destination that supports community and commercial activity rather than an inhospitable pass-through point. Public spaces can coexist with busy roads. The Columbia Heights Civic Plaza and the Park at City Center are two such examples.

While Dave Thomas Circle is not currently bordered by buildings that activate the streetscape, the pace of development in NoMa, Eckington, and Union Market suggests that that could change dramatically in the next 10 years. The panel advocates for infrastructure that anticipates that change.

The second is that the panel proposed building First Street in way that allows it to be closed temporarily so that the left and center spaces can be converted into one, large space for larger events, such as a weekend farmer’s market or food truck festivals. The ability to convert this space to prioritize community gatherings over vehicular mobility would be a major amenity and would help attract people to this space.

Third, the panel came up with inventive ways to beautify the space, including planting more trees; introducing a large, vertical art installation at the center of the circle; and using the Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms building as a canvas for projected art displays.

DDOT will dictate how much of this vision becomes a reality

At the end of the day, DDOT’s engineers and planners will have the final say on whether to adopt the ULI panel’s recommendations. DDOT deserves praise for participating in the panel and being receptive to ideas for potential modifications to a concept at a time when it is trying to accelerate the design process. The agency’s recent installation of interim safety improvements on Florida Avenue NE potentially portend a greater emphasis on pedestrian and cyclist safety than Concept 6 reflects.

The redesign of Dave Thomas Circle is an enormous opportunity for DDOT to transform one of the most dangerous intersections in the city to an active space that brings neighborhoods together. Opportunities to reshape an urban landscape this dramatically do not happen every day, and they are important to get right because the next opportunity to get it right may be decades away. That’s why DDOT should adopt ULI’s refinements to Concept 6, and area residents, urbanists, and multimodal proponents should be prepared to advocate for them throughout the design process.

Conor Shaw is an attorney at a nonpartisan ethics watchdog. Conor grew up on Capitol Hill and now lives in Eckington, where he is president of the Eckington Civic Association. Conor wants our streets to be safer for all—and especially cyclists and pedestrians; our local businesses to thrive; and our housing policies to promote affordability, diversity and yes—density.