Four years after a deadly gas explosion ripped through half a city block in downtown Durham, killing two people and injuring 25 others, the site remains vacant.
On the corner of Duke and Morgan streets, the lot is now a mass of concrete rubble and overgrown weeds cordoned off by a chain-link fence. Among the remains: a small stack of steps leading to nowhere, and some remnants of vintage black-and-white tiles that used to be part of the foyer for the Kaffeinate coffee shop — one of two buildings destroyed in the blast.
This month marks the explosion’s anniversary. While four lawsuits against eight companies accused of negligence currently work their way through the courts, redevelopment plans for the block are slowly taking shape.
Here’s a closer look:
What happened in the 2019 Durham gas explosion?
On April 10, 2019, a gas explosion tore through 115 N. Duke St., destroying the coffee shop building and killing its owner, Kong Lee. A worker for the PSNC Energy company who responded to the scene, Jay Rambeaut, died two weeks later from injuries sustained in the blast, The News & Observer reported.
The Durham Fire Department determined that the explosion and fire erupted after a contractor accidentally ruptured a natural gas line five feet from the Kaffeinate coffee shop’s door, and that gas flowed unabated for one hour. The fire department found no evidence that anyone from the contractor’s crew called 911.
In 2021, state investigators released a report that mirrored that finding, stating the probable cause was a drilling device rupturing a gas line. That let gas escape into the interior, where it ignited.
The blast and fire damaged 18 buildings, including two that had been condemned, having a total assessed tax value of about $108.6 million, it was reported at the time.
The companies most affected by the blast were Kaffeinate and Prescient, a construction technology company that had moved to Durham from Denver two years prior. They shared a building at 115 N. Duke St. Kaffeinate is now permanently closed, while Prescient has an office in Charlotte. It had a manufacturing plant in Mebane that it closed in 2022.
A second building, 111 N. Duke St., was also destroyed. Other buildings on the 100 block of North Duke Street that housed the Mexican restaurant Torero’s and the upscale seafood restaurant Saint James also sustained damage. Both restaurants were closed for about a year after the explosion while repairs were made. Since then, Saint James has permanently closed. Torero’s, meanwhile, is getting ready to reopen in a space in West Village Apartments.
In June 2020, a Raleigh law firm filed four lawsuits related to the explosion: one for Lee’s family and three on behalf of people who were injured.
The News & Observer reached out to attorney William Bystrynski, who is in charge of the lawsuits. He said there is “no update on the case at this time.”
115 N. Duke St.
Now a vacant lot, 115 N. Duke St. used to be the address of a building constructed in 1928 that once housed a Studebaker dealership, according to Open Durham’s website.
It remained an auto venue through the 1980s, but over the years it also served as the base for several other businesses, including restaurants like the Weeping Radish and the advertising agency Ogilvy.
Kaffeinate and Prescient were there from 2017 until the explosion.
In 2021, Durham-based Austin Lawrence Partners (ALP), under the business name 115 Duke Property Partners LLC, purchased the parcel from West Coast real estate company, 2050 Bentley LLC, for $3.25 million, according to property records.
The firm developed the Unscripted Hotel Durham, revamping one of the city’s most iconic buildings — the former Jack Tar Motel. They’re also behind One City Center, its first residential high rise in downtown Durham with luxury condominiums, apartments, retail and offices. It is also building a glassy 27-story skyscraper called The Novus at 400 W. Main St. in Durham’s Five Points District.
On its website, the firm says the land at 115 N. Duke Street will serve “as a base for a future high-density development.”
“We bought the site to hold and then develop the site. That has not changed,” Zach Prager, ALP’s director of investments, told The N&O. “At the moment we really don’t have much to provide on future plans.”
111 N. Duke St.
111 N. Duke is part of a larger parcel with an address on Main Street and is owned by Charlotte-based Asana Partners, which bought much of Durham’s Brightleaf Square for $39 million in 2019.
Last August, Asana filed plans to build a 461-space parking deck and a seven-story retail and office building on the site. The newly planned 250,000-square-foot development is L-shaped and will take up much of the block north of Main Street between Duke and Gregson streets, according to a site plan obtained by The News & Observer. Plans include demolishing the mid-1920s restaurant buildings that formerly housed Saint James and Torero’s.
Planning staff has reviewed the site plan and requested changes.
“They haven’t resubmitted yet, and it’s not yet approved,” Durham senior planner Robin Schultze told The N&O. “It may change prior to construction.”
Welch Liles, Asana’s managing director, declined to give a timeline for the project.
“We’re still in early design and planning for this site,” he said. “We don’t have updates to share at this point.”
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