When James Snyder tells people he's an Arlington city planner, they laugh, Snyder is not surprised.

"We've failed to keep up with the times. Many of our businesses are in deteriorating condition. Our commercial strips are ugly and unattractive. This is the public face of Arlington. But," Snyder continues, "it is difficult to point the finger of blame. It has been an evolutionary process."

In an attempt to stop the piecemeal development and redevelopment of Arlington and to open up the channels of communication, more than 150 businessman, planners, county officials and interested citizens gathered on Saturday for an all-day seminar and workshop entitled "Arlington in Transition." The event, held at the Sheraton National Motor Hotel, was co-sponsored by the Arlington Chamber of Commerce, the Arlington Civic Federation and the Arlington League of Women Voters.

"During its 350-year history, Arlington has always been in transition," said Milka Bliznakov, head of the Virginia Polytechnical Institute's two-year urban planning study of Arlington. "We speak now not of long-range plans but of 'horizon plans.' We must be flexible. There are many complex forces acting upon us over which we have no control.

"Whatever you decide to do you must remember that you might be creating a model for suburban areas of the future," Bliznakov concluded in her address to the seminar.

Saturday's discussion appeared to shatter the stereotyped images of small, defenseless environmentalists versus big, cruel developers and zealous citizens versus plodding bureaucrats.

"Entrepreneurs do care," said Preston Caruthers, president of the Preston Construction Corp.

"There is too much parochialism in Arlington government," said Newman Carter, owner of the Lee Heights Shopping Center. "Of the 44 directors of the Chamber of Commerce, there are no women, no blacks and no one under 40. That's not a Chamber of Commerce, that's a Rotary Club," Carter said.

"Newman's a good guy," said Chamber member Pete Abbott, shaking his head. "But he's giving the wrong impression. We are attempting to broaden our base."

The major emphasis of Saturday's seminar was on the redevelopment options currently under consideration in the county. These include Washington architect Arthur Cotton Moore's design for Shirlington approved by the County Board in October 1976 and estimated by Moore to cost between $75 million and $100 million.

Moore's plan calls for five new curving residential buildings, including a high rise tower, pedestrian plaza and mall complete with a lagoon, outdoor cafe and skating rink.

Moore, designer of Georgetown's Canal Square, also showed slides of his design commissioned by B. M. Smith and Associates, Inc. for the burial of utility lines and the planting of trees along Columbia Pike from S. Courthouse Road to Highland Street. Arches would be erected to carry traffic signals and would be outfitted with color corrected mercury vapor lights ("the lowest energy producing lights available," according to Moore).

There was also discussion of the Pentagon City project and the proposed revitalization of the Ballston and Clarendon areas.

"Can I be hearing right? Are we talking about a Renaissance in Arlington?" asked Louise Chestnut, environmentalist and head of the Committee on Optimum Growth. "If so, where is our Medici?"

The fiscal realities could not be ignored. According to Robert Wheeler, chief of the County Planning Division, the situation is quite bleak economonically from the development point of view. "But if your goal is controlled growth then things look good," he said.

Wheeler offered the following statistics and observations:

The total Arlington population is declining. The peak occurred in the mid-'60s, when the population was 180,000; the 1976 figure is 156,000. "This decline is the result of a lower birth rate."

The major demographic change has occurred in the 20-34 age group. This group totaled 37,000 in 1960 and 59,000 in 1976. "They compose one third of all Arlington households. The future decisions of this group will have a major impact on the county."

There has been a decrease in federal employment, including the military.

The Economic Development Commission has recommended to the Arlington County Board a goal of $50 million in new private development over a period of 12 to 15 years. "There is considerable doubt about achieving this considering the economic and demographic changes. Townhouse and low-rise unit development looks good but no one knows for sure when high-rise and condominiums will start again."

"A further consideration is air pollution strategy and the energy situation. If trends continues, this will improve Arlington's outlook," Wheeler said.