ARLINGTON — There’s an empty lot with fire-scarred walls on either side where 2 Bits and More, an indoor flea market and variety store, burned in 2016.
The building on Olympic Avenue, one of the oldest in downtown Arlington, was torn down in 2017. Neighboring business owners bought the property. They have no immediate plans to develop it, but have dreams of what they’d like to do in time.
“We want to do the right thing here for everybody, but at this point we’re not going to be aggressively pursuing development for at least another year or two,” said Steven Van Matre, who co-owns Bistro San Martin with Martin Estrada-Perez. “There’s reality. There are the dreams, and then there’s reality.”
They bought the property, next to the bistro, for $55,000, according to county tax records. They brainstormed ideas for it: a mixed use commercial-condominium building, or maybe a boutique hotel. That might happen in the future, but for now they plan to leave the site vacant and fenced off.
Customers often ask whether they’ll expand the bistro, recently named one of the top 100 most romantic restaurants in the U.S. Van Matre said such an expansion doesn’t make financial sense.
“We’ve been here 13 years, and I really don’t want to make an investment like that for another couple of years,” he said. “We don’t have long-term goals to develop any more or try to create a bigger business than we can handle. We’ve kind of found our niche and we’re going to stay with that.”
Just filling the “big hole” where the thrift shop used to stand would cost tens of thousands of dollars, he said. The restaurant owners thought about adding a patio and outdoor seating there, but the price tag is too high to pay off in Washington, where ideal outdoor dining weather only lasts a few months of the year, Van Matre said.
The fire that gutted 2 Bits and More happened in October 2016. The heat inside grew so intense that it blew out the front windows. No one was hurt, but the building, part of downtown Arlington since 1901, partially collapsed. Damage was estimated at more than $450,000. Some clean-up also was needed at neighboring buildings.
Investigators concluded that the blaze was intentionally set. In December 2016, Teresa Lynn Martinez pleaded guilty to second-degree domestic violence arson. She did not admit to the crime, but acknowledged that a jury was likely to find her guilty. She was sentenced to three months of jail time with the option of house arrest.
Martinez’s estranged husband lived in an apartment at the back of the shop. She reportedly had told him that she would light his house on fire.
An August 2017 court order states that the defendant must pay nearly $500,000 in restitution. Listed recipients include insurance agencies and Dawn Ambler, who owned 2 Bits and More.
Ambler said insurance covered the mortgage and demolition, but she couldn’t rebuild. She hasn’t relocated 2 Bits and More, but is focusing on her family and home, she said.
She’d owned the building since 1991. For 15 years, it was a variety store, a sort of five-and-dime where kids could stop in after school to buy candy. In 2006, she closed the variety store and reopened as an indoor flea market featuring local vendors.
“My variety store was about the kids, and the flea market kind of developed a life of its own with all the vendors … It became just a real community feeling in there,” she said.
The sudden loss of her longtime business was heartbreaking, Ambler said. But people in Arlington rallied around her.
“The love and support that I got from the community really, really made a difference in me being able to get through this and being able to be OK,” she said.
She feels good about selling to Van Matre and Estrada-Perez.
“The silver lining, I guess, was that I didn’t realize that I needed to be at home more,” Ambler said. “Sometimes God does for us what we didn’t really know we needed. That’s what I’ve come to. I got through it and I’m on the other side.”
Kari Bray: 425-339-3439; firstname.lastname@example.org.