On Nov. 5, 1968, as Richard Nixon was defeating Hubert Humphrey, Arlington voters were approving one of the biggest bond issues in county history -- $6.5 million.

The money went for a 235,000-square-foot brick building near Arlington Boulevard and Glebe Road which opened in 1972. Named for Thomas Jefferson, the building was half junior high school and half recreation center -- and according to some critics, all boondoggle.

"Unneeded and wasteful," said one County Board member at the time. "White elephant," said another. "Intrusion on the neighborhood," said many residents of the quiet surrounding neighborhoods of Ashton Heights and Arlington Heights.

But after eight years, Thomas Jefferson Intermediate School and Community Center -- or just plain TJ, as nearly everyone seems to call the sprawling complex -- apparently has found a secure niche in the community.

Some neighbors still have complaints, mainly about parking problems and some rowdiness at the center. But for the most part, the reviews are good.

"I don't know a soul who doesn't love it, or think it's helped the community," says TJ's supervisor, Toni Hubbard.

"I am still as pleased and excited about the facility as I was the day I began to plan it," said the county recreation division chief, Constance McAdam.

"I think this has been an overwhelming success, worth every penny we spent," said William G. Malone, an Arlington attorney who served on TJ's original planning board.

"I feel real special here, like I do nowhere else," said 14-year old Theresa Booher, who "just about grew up" at the complex.

"It's simple," said Joseph Macekura, principal of the intermediate school.

"It works."

More than 1,400 people use the facility on an average day. About 500 are seventh-and eighth-graders, attending class at Thomas Jefferson Intermediate School.

The remaining 900 amble steadily through the gray steel doors of the recreation entrance from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., usually one by one, carrying a gym bag, or a can of soda, or a pool cue. In short, says the center's visual arts director, Dale Erickson, the TJ crowd is "everybody you're looking for and anybody you're looking for."

They may be housewives taking classes in pottery-making or photography. They may be military officers who want ot jog during their lunch hours.

They may be teen-agers looking for a pickup basketball game. They may be 10-year-olds fascinated with feeding coins into space-age pinball machines. They may be middle-aged men coming to practice volleyball.

Above all, they come from all parts of the community -- white, black, Hispanic, Vietnamese, Korean.

"TJ truly is all things to all people," says Frank O'Leary, a 37-year-old economist who serves as president of the TJ advisory council.

The center does a pretty good job of being all those things, too, according to three national recreation magazines and the county police.

The magazines named TJ one of the five best recreation centers in the country last year. The police say that other than occasional loiterers in front of the complexes -- and hard feelings from time to time on the basketball floor -- TJ is anything but a hotbed of tension, despite its potentially volatile mix of races, ages and sexes.

But TJ is nearing a controversial crossroads that could nudge it away from its original purpose.

Caught in a budget squeeze, the center's management is considering renting out space for the first time to trade shows and conventions that do not have firm roots in the community.

Rentals would not be unprecedented. TJ's 26-acre playing field is rented every other year to the Arlington County Fair (the three-day rate is $1,780). The gymnasium was rented once to a model car show, at the rate of $500 for four hours.

"But both of those are local," said Ken Hurt, director of the recreation department division that includes TJ.

Recently the Arlington County School Board, formally TJ's landlord, approved a plan to rent the gym next September for a national cat show, which will include 600 cats and perhaps 10,000 spectators.

Fall is a relatively slow time for the complex, and TJ officials doubt that the cat show will inconvenience many gym users, since it will probably still be warm enough for the gym users to play outdoors, Hurt said.

Still, the gym will have to be closed to TJ's normal clientele, and "that's ticklish. It's a question of precedent," said McAdam.

TJ's budget squeeze is not nearly as tight as it could be, mainly because user fees cover part of the center's costs.

The center has an annual budget of $200,000, with more than $90,000 coming from user fees and the rest from county funds allocated by the County Board. Funds to pay off the original construction bond come from separate funds appropriated by the County Board.

Although children younger than 18 can use TJ free, everyone else pays user fees. They range from $2 a year for Arlington County senior citizens to $60 a year for out-of-county adults. Meanwhile, adults who use TJ as guests of members must pay $2 per visit, and lockers cost extra.

Still, in the eight years since it opened, several programs at TJ have been eliminated as the result of budget cuts totaling 30 percent. The chief victims of the ax have been a half dozen pre-school classes and children's programs in visual and household arts, affecting a total of about 300 young people. "Could we have more cuts? Any time," said supervisor Hubbard.

But plans to offset the budget crunch by renting space at TJ could spark some sharp criticism from neighbors. Nowhere would it be sharper than in Phyllis Regan's house at the corner of Second Street and South Jackson, directly across the street from TJ's outdoor tennis and basketball courts.

Regan already considers herself under siege by noise and traffic from TJ -- and occasionally from stray tennis balls.

Her front lawn is 40 feet due south of a concrete wall against which TJ tennis players practice their strokes. Missed shots wind up all over Regan's property.

Regan says her two sons have collected "dozens of boxes" of tennis balls since TJ opened. Indeed, three fuzzy yellow missiles landed under a reporter's car during a recent afternoon visit with Regan.

"Renting TJ would only make all of it worse," Regan said. "It would take it beyond the realm of what was intended. Can you imagine parking out here? It's already impossible."

There are 333 parking spaces at TJ, even though officials estimate that 80 percent of the 900 people who use the center each day drive there. Many TJ veterans admit they park illegally, sometimes as much as five blocks away.

Arlington County police say they average about five complaints of illegal parking a week from neighborhood residents. As a result, police frequently ticket along Second Street and nearby Old Glebe Road. Meanwhile, Dominion Arms, an apartment building just west of Phyllis Regan's house, as hired armed guards to keep interlopers out of its parking lot.

Hurt said that renting space at TJ for conventions "couldn't help but make the parking situation worse . . . We're not a civic center here, and we shouldn't become one. I just don't think you can close this facility for a significant amount of time just to raise revenues."

However, Macekura, who is the administrative head of TJ, said he generally favors renting TJ space, and has "no problem" with the cat show.

Renting is "the only way to go," Macekura said. "no one can really argue that it's against the county's interest to use the building, as long as the priorities are always schools and recreation first. There isn't a building in the county that gives the citizens more per dollar than this one."

Part of what TJ offers, according to some regulars, is the chance to mix with kindred souls.

Ynes Tate, 16, calls TJ a "place where you can get to know people real quickly." Charles Hart, a 28-year-old Metro-bus driver and TJ basketball regular, calls the place "therapy." Steve Johnson, an 18-year-old Howard University student from Nigeria, calls TJ "cool. It has everything I need."

But for 15-year-old Michelle McConnell, TJ is "a lifesaver."

"I used to smoke pot, pop pills and get drunk," McConnell said. "I used to be in trouble all the time. It was really bad. But then I came here (for dances and other teen-age programs), and I haven't been involved in any of that stuff for months.

"There's something about this place. It makes you understand yourself better."