VIRGINIA BEACH -- On this bustling waterfront, where ceramic flamingos and stenciled T-shirts are as much a part of the attraction as the gentle whip of the waves, septuagenarian Alice Granbery Walter is fighting to showcase a bit of history.

Since January, Walter and the 24th Street Oceanfront Park Committee have been trying to raise $600,000 to turn a parking lot on the waterfront AT THE BEACH Another in a series of occasional articles into a grassy stage for an elegant 1903-vintage Coast Guard station, now wedged between parked cars and a 17-story hotel.

"This could open up and start something as the hotels deteriorate," said Walter.

The 175-by-148-foot lot -- the city has pledged $1.8 million toward its purchase -- is one of the last undeveloped parcels on this three-mile vacation strip along Atlantic Avenue. But even the campaign's supporters admit the purchase may be too little and too late to make a difference in the nearly solid line of hotels, cafes and souvenir shops that face the ocean.

"Yeah, that's a little postage piece {of property}, but we need something," said Jim Ricketts, the city's tourism director. "It might be just a statement."

If so, such a statement would have plenty of competition for the hearts and minds of the 2.5 million tourists expected to visit this year.

The booming 310-square-mile city, now the state's largest, with a population of about 360,000, has witnessed a 40 percent increase in the number of hotel rooms in the last four years, said Ricketts. There are now 7,500 in the beachfront area alone.

The city is in the middle of a beachfront revitalization program, which includes moving more live entertainment to the waterfront and allowing a few sidewalk cafes closer to the boardwalk.

Its most ambitious project is a $45 million plan to widen the sand beach by 100 feet and to build a new bulkhead to protect against erosion. The project calls for an initial 2 million cubic yards of imported sand.

The plan has run into a few snags, including an unpopular proposal by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to build a concrete bulkhead that would stand four and a half feet above the existing boardwalk in some areas.

Each spring for the past 25 years, the city has brought in 300,000 cubic yards of sand to replace an equal amount annually washed out to sea, said Bob Matthias, a lobbyist for the city who is working on the beach renourishment project.

The hotels on the waterfront are now so close to the sand that they cast shadows on the beach about 2 p.m. each day. "After 2 o'clock in the afternoon, it's real hard to get a tan," said Matthias.

The tourists don't seem to mind. Judging from the traffic jams at dusk and the busy salt water taffy shops that glimmer in pink neon, nighttime entertainment here is as important as the sunshine.

At 10 p.m. Kevin McCorkle, 27, and Greg Fuller, 21, are seated on their motorcycles scouting for girls.

They don't have to look very far.

Fuller explains that several nights a week the two enjoy the ritual of quick conversation with a passing stranger.

The challenge, said McCorkle, is to get an answer to a comment and then, if you're lucky, move on to the in-depth subjects.

He offered a demonstration:

"Hi," said McCorkle to a tan teen-ager in a short, tight pink skirt.

"Hi," she responded, slowing down her pace and twisting around to show a smile.

"Where you goin'?"

"Home." She is walking backwards to face him.

"Where's home . . . a name of a town."

"Newport News." She is almost standing still,but her two friends have not stopped.

"You don't want to go back to Newport News."

She smiles, shrugs her shoulders and continues the promenade.

Transaction completed. McCorkle is satisfied.

Cruising the avenue has taken on a certain status-consciousness. One car rental company reports a 300 percent increase over the last year in the number of limousines on the road.

On the weekend, it takes a limousine about two hours -- at $35 an hour -- to travel the three-mile drive.

A few years ago, when rowdiness along the strip was thought to have scared away families, city officials took the offense against offensive behavior.

The object was to increase the visibility of the police force.

As a result, these days the police and their aides are everywhere.

Members of the Courtesy Patrol -- a sort of walking welcome wagon -- stroll the boardwalk, as do the police aides.

There are also police on motorcycles, motorized tricycles and four-wheel drive vehicles.

There are police in helicopters and in boats and with dogs.

There are police who walk the streets and police who ride on horseback down the middle of the street.

"It's a permanent part of going to the beach," Mayor Robert G. Jones said about the vibrant scene.

"A lot of local residents drive many miles just to cruise the avenue. It's just something we have to live with."