With the opening of a new wing of the Georgetown Park shopping mall today, Georgetown merchants are hoping that the worst is over.

Two years ago, longtime retailers were pulling out of Georgetown, complaining that the lack of parking, a high crime rate and the younger, less affluent customers who were flocking to Georgetown were hurting business.

Today, however, with the business retreat from Georgetown having slowed somewhat, retailers are increasingly encouraged about the future -- especially because of the 42 mostly upscale new stores that will be opened as part of what is called Phase II of the six-year-old Georgetown Park mall. About half of the shops will open today, with the rest scheduled to open by March.

Even so, some major problems still confront Georgetown businesses. Chief among them is the severe parking shortage, which grows greater as new stores are built on what used to be open parking lots. Another problem is the relatively high rate of crime in the area, which has deterred some shoppers.

The design of Georgetown Park's new wing, which is connected to the existing mall about half a block down M Street, closely resembles the original, with the same iron and brass railings, black and white tiles and parquet floors.

The names of the stores coming to Georgetown's newest addition are by almost any measure impressive. Popular designer Liz Claiborne will open her first specialty shop in the nation there. Designer Tommy Hilfiger will open two shops -- one for men and one for women -- his first in the Washington area. A two-level Polo/Ralph Lauren shop will be prominent at the entrance to the mall.

Meanwhile, the popular Williams-Sonoma, Sharper Image and Talbots also will be setting up shop in Georgetown Park II, as well as Limited Inc. subsidiaries The Limited, Limited Express and Victoria's Secret.

The arrival of these stores follows the opening of Georgetown branches of several other well-known retailers, including Esprit, The Gap and Banana Republic. The Nature Co. also is expected to move into the area soon.

"Any time you get a Ralph Lauren and other kinds of retailers like that, it is a positive development for Georgetown," said John Laytham, who -- as executive vice president of Clyde's restaurant -- has seen Georgetown's business environment change dramatically over the years. "It makes for a critical mass of stores with a wide selection of goods. That, in turn, makes Georgetown all the better as a place to shop."

Richard J. Hindin, president of Britches of Georgetowne, is even more bullish about the area's prospects.

"It's as good or better than it's been in a long time," said Hindin, who also serves as president of the Business and Professional Association of Georgetown. "I've been here 20 years, and Georgetown is clearly on the up -- cresting to a point where it hasn't been since the antique shops left prior to the late '60s' hippie stores."

But not all businesses are thriving. Three boutique clothing stores of the type that once were the backbone of Georgetown retailing are closing their doors: La Strega, Sharon and Caroline.

Although other retailers are taking their place, some Georgetown residents complain that the newcomers are outlets of larger chains, such as The Gap and Banana Republic, that can be found in many other shopping malls around the area.

"The big chains are the only ones who can afford the rent," said David Roffman, editor of the Georgetowner newspaper. As a result, he said, Georgetown no longer is the unique shopping area of the city it once was. "It is turning into a mall, with one big difference: We have no parking," Roffman said. "That makes it increasingly difficult to compete with Tysons Corner."

What's more, the bulk of Georgetown's business has shifted from Wisconsin Avenue, which used to be the main retailing street, to M Street as a result of Georgetown Park's opening six years ago.

La Strega, a Georgetown institution for 25 years, closed last week after its owner, Hildegard Czerner, concluded, "The career women to whom I catered didn't come up Wisconsin Avenue anymore. I just didn't have the traffic."

The women's clothing shop Caroline also is closing -- although it, unlike La Strega, plans to reopen next year. "There were not enough career women here for my type of clothing," store owner Caroline Puglisi said. "I looked into {Georgetown Park} mall, but decided to move to Connecticut and N streets instead, because I have a real bad feeling about Georgetown. I grew up here, but it's really changed a lot. I'm almost embarrassed to say I have a store in Georgetown."

Among Puglisi's concern is the rate of crime, which she said seemed to be increasing. Just how much is unclear, however.

Local business groups, using police statistics, argue that Georgetown is one of the safest areas in the city. But the District's Office of Criminal Justice Plans and Analysis last summer released statistics that showed Georgetown as having a very high reported crime rate.

Even though most of these crimes were against property, the report showed that Georgetown had a notably high number of assaults for a neighborhood that has a mix of businesses and residences.

Nonetheless, Georgetown business owners say the crime statistics are overblown. "Crime is scary, but violent crime here is not what it is made out to be," Laytham said. "There are hundreds of murders in the city, and except for one policemen who was killed when he was trying to stop a burglary, there has not been one murder here in the last five to 10 years."

The addition to Georgetown Park also may alleviate one of the area's biggest problems -- parking -- with the addition of 200 paid parking spaces.

The addition of 120,000 square feet of retailing space to the existing 200,000-square-foot mall was funded by American Telephone & Telegraph Co.'s Employe Pension Fund, which in a partnership with Coldwell Banker owns and operates the mall.