A 17-year-old youth was arrested and charged with arson yesterday in connection with an early-morning three-alarm fire that gutted a grocery store and caused an estimated $500,000 in damages to the Brentwood Village shopping center in Northeast Washington, D.C. police and fire officials said.

The youth, who D.C. police said was from Northwest Washington, was apprehended at the scene of the fire and charged several hours later. He was being held at the D.C. Receiving Home for Children pending arraignment today.

More than 150 firefighters from 27 of the 53 firefighting companies in the city responded to the blaze, which began about 3:55 a.m. It took more than two hours to bring it under control.

One firefighter suffered an eye injury and was treated and released at the Washington Hospital Center.

One fire official said blazes were started in five separate locations within the block-long, brick-covered structure in the 1300 block of Rhode Island Ave. NE, just north of the Rhode Island Avenue Metro station.

Fire Inspector Richard Clarke estimated the structural damage at $500,000 and said the grocery store, situated in the middle of the center, will have to be torn down.

The store, the only grocery serving the Brentwood neighborhood, had been closed since August, forcing many local residents to travel miles to shop for food.

It had been scheduled to reopen in mid-January, but shopping center owners said yesterday that the fire's damage will force a delay of at least five months.

Other stores in the center, including a barbershop, shoe repair store and drugstore, had closed earlier last year.

"The need for the shopping center is phenomenal," said Francis Fabrizio, one of three partners in the Brentwood Village Association, which bought the center and began renovations in December.

"That is one of the most populated areas of the city and there is no neighborhood shopping, which is exactly what we're trying to provide," he said.

A significant number of Brentwood's residents are lower-income people without private transportation, and many senior citizens live in the area as well.

"I have to go all the way to Maryland to go grocery shopping now and by the time I get back, I have arthritis trouble," said one elderly Brentwood woman, Pearl Jeffries.

The retired domestic worker, who does not own a car, has lived just three blocks from the shopping center for almost 10 years and said that she often shopped at the center grocery store before it closed.

"It's upsetting trying to get a ride to the store, and tiring waiting for the bus. And the crowds are pushy at the big markets," said Jeffries, 72.

"We had planned to open the center this April; now we expect to open in June or July," Fabrizio said yesterday in a telephone interview. "It's to our advantage to get this project completed as soon as possible. What's good for the community is good for us."

Simuel Neal, 70, a retired mechanical engineer in the federal government, said he remembers the old Brentwood Shopping Center fondly. "They had everything in that market. You could buy just about anything you could want."

A spanking new shopping center would uplift the neighborhood, said Ethel Forrest, 54. "It's rough out here. We really need somewhere to go. Lots of us don't have cars out here. We're very inconvenienced. It can't get much worse than this."

The center, when finished, will include a large drugstore, an auto parts store, a sandwich shop, a liquor store, hair salon, a men's store and a health spa, Fabrizio said.

"This fire is discouraging. It's part of doing business, but it's very discouraging," he said.

While firefighters were battling the blaze at the center, an electrical fire broke out less than a block away in an apartment building in the 1400 block of Saratoga Avenue NE.

Fire officials said the second fire was not considered to be related to the shopping center blaze. An estimate of the damages was not available.