When the mall was called Parkington Shopping Center, J.C. Penney Co. Inc. sold more bib overalls than any other item, and The Hecht Co.'s budget store was a popular drawing card.

This Wednesday, when Parkington reopens as Ballston Common, Penney's will sell Halston dresses, Reebok shoes and DAKS suits. At Hecht's, administrative offices have taken the place of the budget basement.

The hospital-green walls of the 35-year-old Parkington are gone. In their stead stands rose-colored granite. The dingy linoleum has given way to bright ceramic tile, and the dreary, stodgy strip of rundown budget-price stores has been replaced by a $ 42 million, four-story mall, highlighted by a skylight, a glass elevator and a myriad of plants.

"This used to be a nothing mall," recalled William D. Striegl, Penney's manager for Washington area stores. Today, "with its upgraded design and decor, it is one of a kind," Striegl said.

At one point, Penney's executives wanted to leave the area entirely. But Striegl persuaded the chain to remain. This week, when its new store reopens, the Ballston Penney's will become "the showcase store" for the chain in the Washington area, Striegl said.

A block away from the Ballston subway stop, Ballston Common on Glebe Road and Wilson Boulevard also will become the showcase mall for Arlington County, largely because it is the county's only regional shopping center. Although another Arlington mall is proposed for Crystal City, that mall, called Pentagon City, is not expected to open before the fall of 1989 at the earliest.

Ballston Common's "opening is significant," said Thomas C. Parker, chief of Arlington's economic development division. "Being the only single regional center here, it will fulfill a major need for Arlington shoppers," who up to now generally have had to turn to malls in other jurisdictions for serious shopping.

At the same time, the mall should add about 1,500 jobs and $ 2 million in annual tax revenue to Arlington, according to estimates by the mall's developer, May Centers Inc., a subsidiary of May Department Stores, which also owns The Hecht Co.

But even more important, Parker said, is the role the new mall will play in the development of the rapidly changing Ballston area. Once a neighborhood of modest houses and low-rise office buildings, Ballston is being transformed into high-density apartments, town houses, high-rise office buildings and hotels.

"This is a great opportunity for Ballston because it provides a major retail focus that will support and create a more attractive market for residential housing," Parker said. "The retailing changes in Ballston (ne Parkington) reflect the metamorphosis that has been place in the industry over the past few years."

One after another, outdated urban malls and inner-city shopping areas are being spruced up -- or, as in the case of Ballston, almost completely razed and then rebuilt.

The reason is simple. Shopping center developers are running out of places to build large, profitable malls. As a result, they are turning their attention to older malls and shopping areas to see how they can be revitalized.

Perhaps nowhere is this change more noticeable than in downtown Washington. This week, Woodward & Lothrop Inc. unveils its $ 20 million renovation of its downtown store. The unveiling comes just a year after Hecht's opened a new downtown store two blocks away. Two new downtown shopping centers -- the Pavilion at the Old Post Office building and The Shops at National Place -- have also opened, drumming up much new business for an area all but forgotten six years ago.

At these major renovations are taking place, department stores themselves are updating their merchandising -- emphasing more expensive lines and eliminating entire departments, such as major appliances, toys or furniture, to become more of a specialty store catering to the affluent customer than a general merchandiser serving all segments of society.

Among retailers, Penney's has been one of the most aggressive in trying to change its image to attract a more affluent, fashion-conscious consumer. A few years ago, it launched a $ 1 billion modernization campaign in which some major departments -- paint, hardware, major appliances, fabrics, lawn and garden goods and automotive centers -- were dropped to give more room and emphasis to trendier, higher priced apparel and home furnishings.

The Ballston store takes this modernization effort one step further, according to Striegl. "It is even more of a specialty store. We do not have furniture and the children's department is smaller" than one found at a typical Penney's store. On the other hand, "we've expanded the adult apparel section -- especially that for the working woman." And for the first time, Penney's will rent tuxedos in its Ballston store.

More than ever before, this Penney's has been designed to aim at a "particular market . . . . We're exploiting the high end of the lines," Striegl said, reeling off numbers to explain why.

"The average household income in Arlington is $ 46,439 -- that's way above the national average of $ 31,674. Only 19 percent of the households here have children," way below the national average, he said. However, 55 percent of the population is single, way above the national average, with 52 percent of the population female.

Looking at those statistics, Penney's decided to expand its women's apparel and accessory sections to take up 50 percent of the store, compared with the 35 percent of space they take in typical Penney's stores.

Hecht's has reached the same conclusion. "We've changed our merchandise mix so it appeals more towards working women," said J. Warren Harris, Hecht's chairman.

In addition to Penneys and Hecht's, only four other stores are returning to the mall: Casual Corner, Waldenbooks, General Nutrition Center and Dart Drug.

Gone are McCrory's, Hub Furniture, Lotus Imports and the 7&9 Shoppe. In their place are a host of stores aimed at the more affluent shopper, such as Benetton, Britches Great Outdoors, Aca Joe, Gantos, LaVogue, the Limited, Victoria's Secret, the Bombay Company and This End Up.

In the place of Orange Bowl, Indian Spice Store and Coffee Mill Imports are Manchu Wok, Texas Cattle Corp., Wingmaster's, You Never Sausage a Place and Frank & Stein.

In addition to the two anchors, about 70 stores will also be open Wednesday. About 85 percent of the mall has been or is about to be leased, according to Richard Shields, development director of May Centers.

Built in 1951, Parkington was one of the first malls in the area. "It had the largest enclosed garage in the country -- hence the name Parkington," said Irene Hunsicker, regional marketing coordinator for May Centers.

As other larger, enclosed malls were built in the suburbs further out, however, Parkington deteriorated. As a result, May Centers first began discussing a face lift in 1979. Initially, May planned only a modest expansion of the then 27-store, one-level mall. May proposed a two-level mall with 30 shops.

But over the years, May expanded its plans so that the mall now has four levels to accommodate 125 specialty shops, a seven-story parking garage and room for three major department stores. Only two department stores are in place. The third -- so far unnamed -- may come in a couple of years. Meanwhile, an eight-story office tower is being built by Alan I. Kay Companies as part of Ballston Common and is slated to open in February.

Developing the shopping center with May Centers is Forest City Rental Properties Corp of Cleveland, a large national developer of commercial real estate.

Ballston Common officials say it is one of the few four-story malls in the country and like to compare it to Georgetown Mall (although its decor is art deco, not Victorian) and contrast it with Tysons Corner.

Given the four floors, "it is an urban mall, not a suburban one" that is spread out over hundreds of acres, Hunsicker said. "It is not designed to have car shows," she said.