ROCKVILLE PIKE is the busiest mall in the country. Too bad the roof leaks.The Pike isn't really a mall, of course; it's a retail gestalt -- Beyond Mall. What individual stores are to malls, shopping centers are to the Pike. It's the most successful commercial area in the country, ringing the bells on more than $650 million in retail sales every year. It flexes more bulk than Arnold Schwarzenegger, but when it comes to respect, it's the Washington area's Rodney Dangerfield. Nobody speaks well of Rockville Pike, but almost nobody stays away.

It's irresistible because it's so obliging. Classic, trash-chic, designer, discount, frenchified and french fried -- you want it, the Pike's got it. It includes the area's most luxury-intensive mall (White Flint), its most calculated high-class, low-cost strip (Mid-Pike Plaza, the home of Syms, Toys-R-Us, G Street Fabrics), the most international ethnic restaurant cluster (Wintergreen, which has Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Indian, Italian, bagel, pizza, doughnut, deli) and a per-capita trendy bar ratio to rival Georgetown's.

It has makeup centers, markup centers, markdown centers, hardware, software, sportswear. It has heavy-metal traffic volume, yes, but it also has Metro every two miles. And after a quarter century of being goosed as the area's ugliest stretch of highway, it is slowly evolving into a swan. Okay, a penguin.

Then there's the other side of Rockville Pike -- the back side, so to speak, the discount imports, Oriental rugs and warehouse outlets a block off on Nicholson Road and Nebel Street and Randolph Road. If you're too proud to park off-Pike, leave your car at White Flint, walk through the mall and keep going . . . to White Flint Plaza. The navy blazer selling at Bloomies for $220 may be on sale at NBO for half.