The selection at the Rosslyn Safeway yesterday had never been worse. The frozen food case was completely empty. A few packets of chipped beef were all that was left in the cold cuts section. And at the fresh vegetable stand, a single head of lettuce sat wilted, left behind.

"This is awful," said Mildred Mankin, a retired Rosslyn resident. "I've been shopping here 35 years, and I can't believe it. They shouldn't be allowed to do this."

Mankin was upset not because the variety of groceries was so poor yesterday, but because it will be so much worse today. The Rosslyn Safeway shut its doors yesterday and will not reopen for almost two years, when it will be part of a new high-rise commercial development in the 1500 block of Wilson Boulevard.

In the meantime, only one full-service grocery store will be open along the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor, and many neighborhood residents, including large numbers of elderly persons without automobiles, say they will have to take cabs and buses to buy food.

"It's really a crime. Lots of people don't have cars and are completely dependent on the store," said Erika Klein, who has lived in Rosslyn since 1959 but said she will be moving from the area soon.

Mankin, a retiree who, like many Rosslyn residents, lives on a fixed income, said she will have to take a taxi to and from the nearest grocery store, the Virginia Square Giant at 1015 N. Monroe St. A round-trip fare will be about $8.

Arlington officials said they, too, are concerned about the county's dwindling number of grocery stores. "We all sense this is a problem," said County Board member Michael E. Brunner, who campaigned on the issue of attracting grocery stores when he was elected in 1983. "People don't want to troop off to Fairfax to buy groceries. Doggone it, you should have some place in your neighborhood."

"Groceries stores are a kind of shorthand for a broader range of neighborhood stores," such as dry cleaners and hardware stores, said Board Chairman John Milliken. Such stores "contribute to Arlington's image as a county that goes out of its way to establish itself as an attractive place to live."

In 1958, however, when Arlington was riding the crest of a wave of suburban expansion that has since moved further west into Fairfax County, Arlington had 58 grocery stores, according to Thomas C. Parker, chief of economic development for the county. Today, there are 18.

As recent growth has pushed up land values and given Arlington a more urban flavor, the major supermarket chains -- geared toward building sprawling, suburban grocery stores -- have been hard to attract, officials said. The board recently approved a plan that calls for aggressive recruitment of grocery stores to the county.

But some shoppers yesterday accused the board of crying crocodile tears. Arlington's push for office development, they said, inevitably has led to a decline in neighborhoods.

"This was very poor planning," said Heather Gurney, standing by the canned goods. "This is not a mixed-use neighborhood -- it's becoming nothing but canyons of glass boxes. It's going to be another K Street . . . . They're making it impossible for this to be a community."

Even for younger shoppers who own automobiles, losing the neighborhood store was painful. "It's kind of sad. This place is right around the corner from home," said David Addison, adding that he will miss the convenience of popping out for refreshments during Monday night football games. "The other places around here are not exactly convenient."

Added Gurney: "You either make the investment of a big trip to the closest grocery store, or you settle for the 7-Eleven."

Although Safeway is committed to returning to the site, some people were skeptical that the grocery store would ever be the same. "This is a friendly store," said Verna McWilliams, who has walked to the Safeway to shop for 30 years. "Most all the people who come here come here every day. It's the neighborhood."