Thomas Clary remembers boyhood visits to the Arlington house his uncle built in 1932; he recalls wandering in the wooded area that is now Fairfax Drive, where a trolley looped around a stream and rumbled toward Clarendon.

"Now, we have another 'trolley' [Metro] running underground, and the stream is paved over and the woods are gone," he said. But Clary is not complaining.

In the course of emotional civic association meetings in the house on North Adams Street where Clary lived for more than 20 years, he and many of his Courtlands neighbors reached the same conclusion: "We decided that the development of central Arlington was inevitable, and not only was it inevitable, it was desirable -- and that was a hard bullet to bite."

The development of the Court House Metro area has been outlined on paper since 1977, when the county adopted a land-use plan for the Rosslyn-Ballston Metro corridor, which includes the Court House, Clarendon and Virginia Square stations. Most development since then has been concentrated at the ends of the corridor, slowly adding residential buildings to Rosslyn's office landscape and shaping the shopping center under way at Ballston.

Now, private development is creeping up the hill toward Court House, and county planners smile as they look out their office windows at the skeletons of new buildings and parking garages, pleased that the development chain's inner link is being forged.

How has the area been altered in recent years? "Well, we have more holes in the ground," County Manager Larry Brown said.

In the 1970s, little growth was seen around Court House. But in the past few years, the skyline has "We decided that the development of central Arlington was inevitable, and not only was it inevitable, it was desirable -- and that was a hard bullet to bite." -- resident Thomas Clary shifted and soared: Woodbury Heights, an 18-story condominium, and an 11-story office building occupied by Bell Atlantic were finished in 1983; a topless dancing joint on North Court House Road stood vacant for several years and was reopened eight months ago as a luncheonette; 162 of Colonial Village's garden apartments have been refurbished and converted to condominiums.

Other, more massive changes are in the offing. A seven-acre gash on the north side of Wilson Boulevard, for example, is slated to hold three office towers and a brick-paved plaza. At ground level, there are smaller, but equally significant signs of transition -- a newly dressed and titled restaurant here, crisp new canopies draping storefronts there.

Not all the changes sit well with area residents and business people, many of whom can recall a time before 10-story buildings and frustrating parking tangles.

Jay Fowler, 74, who has fixed typewriters behind the plate glass of P&T Office Equipment (formerly Kell's Office Equipment) on North Court House Road for 25 years, can remember when there were no meters to clock visitors' parking and a rickety old mansion was perched on the hill where the Quality Inn is now.

"I kind of liked it the old way -- when it wasn't as busy and the buildings weren't so tall," he said.

Several representatives of civic associations in the nearby neighborhoods -- Courtlands, Colonial Village and Lyon Village -- worry that developers are hungrily stacking up more office space than Arlington can absorb, and lament a skyline that edges upward each year. But others say they understand that high-rise buildings, crowded streets and climbing prices are the shape of urban progress. The alternative, they say, may be no development.

"For the last 15 years, there has been this constant sense of anticipation -- that we're going to have a renaissance and new businesses," said Jeffrey Zinn, vice president of the Courtlands Civic Association. "Now that it's started, it's somewhat of a mixed blessing. It all seems to be a little bit out of scale -- too much, too large.

"On the other hand, we've been waiting a long time for this, and it's a little hard to turn off the spigot once you've got it going."

County planners say the new development does not have to choke longtime neighborhoods or destroy the area's small-town atmosphere. They say redevelopment at Court House will be different, that it can preserve the neighborhoods and draw their residents into a new civic core.

What the planners see, and what they will get if a public/private financing plan with the Smith/Artery Co. receives court approval, is Court House Plaza -- a busy urban center with county government pulled under the roofs of several tall office buildings, new stores, restaurants and movie theaters at ground level and a large plaza where people can stroll to the tunes of street musicians in summertime.

In keeping with the county's theme of "bullet" development along the Metro corridor, the Court House cluster will hold some of the area's tallest buildings, with the skyline edging toward the surrounding neighborhoods.

The seven-story Arlington Courthouse and the small brick buildings now holding law offices and other county offices are "sort of a void in the middle of the area," said Jim Snyder of the county's economic development division. When the Court House area is filled, "In a sense, you've filled the hole in the doughnut," he said.

The new buildings, say county planners, have inflated not only the skyline but also expectations for the Court House area.

"Prior to Bell Atlantic, try to imagine the physical setting," said Snyder, peering out the window of an office papered with colorful sketches of Court House's bright, planned future. "There was the Arlington Courthouse, and all these little low buildings full of lawyers. . . . When Bell Atlantic came in, all of a sudden you've got a Fortune 500 business. That certainly had a big impact on the county's thoughts for the Court House itself."

"Our building, along with the [Bell Atlantic] building across the street, were pioneers. But we believe in the location, we believe in Arlington," said John Abbett, an owner of Delta Development, the company that built Woodbury Heights.

The big moves of companies such as Abbett's have triggered smaller changes as well. The Court House area's newest restaurant, for example, will be decked in pale wood and green carpeting, boasting a salad bar, Mexican food and a happy hour called the "attitude adjustment period."

Eventually, say the managers of Summers, the new eatery replacing Lum's at the corner of North Court House Road and Wilson Boulevard, the restaurant will serve workers from several nearby office buildings -- structures that now are just skeletons of crossbeams and cranes.

"This is really a dynamic corner in Arlington," said Summers' associate manager Judy Schmidt last week as she wiped dust from Tiffany glass prints stacked against the restaurant's walls.

Some county residents resent the new rhythm of growth, which they say is speeding too steadily toward higher prices, more knotted traffic and a shrinking housing market for low- and moderate-income persons.

Carol Niedzialek moved to the Colonial Village garden apartments, just north of Wilson Boulevard, 14 years ago because she liked the feeling of low-rise buildings linked by a "greenbelt" of landscaping. Now president of the Colonial Village Tenants' Association, Niedzialek plans to stay in the area for the next 10 years, but she has reservations about some new neighbors, such as the 12-story Colonial Place office tower rising to the west of her home.

"It's quite sad to see all [the construction] going up. You won't be able to see a sunset anymore," she said.

If the revitalization of Court House means a fading sunset for some county residents, it is the opposite for planners and developers, who echo each other's optimism about the coming change.

Not one square foot of Colonial Place's first building, slated to open in spring 1986, is leased, but Greg Friess, executive vice president and general manager of Colonial Village Inc., says he is not worried. "We're very, very bullish about the Arlington market," he said.

In the county manager's office, a vivid poster of a sunrise bursting over the Arlington horizon, with street scenes in the foreground, coaxes potential customers to "Look at Business on the Bright Side." Brown leans forward in his swivel chair when he talks about the future of Court House.

"This whole area is going to be transformed over a period of five years," he said. "It will be a crazy time. Every piece of property around here is being examined and reexamined and dreamed about and wished on."

Often in such a process, the competing tugs of planners, residents, property owners and developers give way to compromises that please almost everyone. Clary and about 25 Courtlands neighbors decided to pool their property and offer it as one chunk to a developer. While some have accused the group of being greedy, Clary maintains that the arrangement gave residents "control of the whole process. We could control it as a desirable place to live and leave something behind that we could be proud of."

Eventually, a high-rise residence will stand where Clary's uncle built his house 52 years ago.

"Sure, it bothers me," Clary said. "It was not an easy emotional conclusion that development was inevitable. It is not always easy to accept reality and overcome nostalgia."