Wheaton is a place that longtime residents describe as quaint and newcomers as eclectic, a 1950s-era community that has been around for so long that it appears to be coming back in style.

But after long being ignored by developers who have turned other Montgomery County communities into sleek new cities, Wheaton is bracing for change.

Many business leaders and some residents are hoping the opening of Metro's newest station on Saturday will help the area shed its gritty, blue-collar image.

Others, however, fear that the new station will bring a wave of development that will destroy the community's small-town character.

"Wheaton is coming of age," said architect Steve Karr, who helped design much of the Wheaton central business district's new spruced-up look in anticipation of Metro's opening.

For the past 1 1/2 years, business owners have restored building facades, planted shrubbery and paved parking lots. The county has buried utility lines and installed mauve decorative concrete bases around lightposts and trees.

There are great, even giddy, expectations for what the station at Georgia Avenue and Reedie Drive will bring to the community: more customers for the stores and restaurants, higher home values for residents, an opportunity to show the rest of the county how to have prosperity without losing hometown charm.

"I'm looking forward to the Metro coming . . . for the convenience of people traveling to downtown," said Cleto Barreto, owner of Nancy's Kitchen, a diner that has operated under various owners since 1952.

"We are hoping to bring a lot of people in so that Wheaton is alive 24 hours a day," said business counselor William D. Morice, who is organizing a Nov. 11 return of the Wheaton holiday parade, once an annual event that stopped 10 years ago.

But there are concerns in the community as well that neighborhood streets will be overrun by commuters; that with rising house values will come higher tax bills; that crime will increase; and that developers will replace the mom-and-pop stores and restaurants with impersonal towers.

Already, one of the area's major developers of multifamily housing has announced plans to build a nine-acre residential and commercial complex. IDI Md. Inc., the developer of the Leisure World retirement community, proposes putting 800 residential units with 300,000 square feet of commercial and 70,000 square feet of retail space just south of the Metro station. The project is still being designed.

"Because of Metro, we are going to get this horrendous development," said Shirley Lynne, president of the Wheaton Forest Civic Association. "The business community is very satisfied. We {the residents} don't have anything yet. We just have a lot of anxiety."

Harold Sides, who bought his three-bedroom rambler 33 years ago, complained that Metro commuters will clog residential streets and take parking spaces from residents, and that an undesirable element will bring more crime.

"Traffic is going to be atrocious. It'll take me 20 minutes to get into Wheaton Plaza and I live six blocks away," said Sides, 68. "And the crime rate is going to double."

But police said there is no evidence that locating Metro stations in communities increases crime except for occasional car break-ins at Metro parking lots, said Capt. Ronald A. Ricucci, commander of the Wheaton-Glenmont station. "The biggest thing we are preparing for is the increase in traffic and parking problems," he said.

To accommodate residents' concerns, the county Department of Transportation has issued parking stickers for residents and police have vowed to ticket anyone parked on residential streets without a sticker from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays. County police also said they would step up patrols in the neighborhoods. Wheaton Plaza, which has sued Metro over the seizure of a part of its parking lot for a 900-car garage, also plans to block its parking lot before 10 a.m. to prevent commuters from parking there for free.

In Montgomery County, Wheaton is an anomaly. Bordered by Randolph Road on the north and Dennis Avenue on the south, and intersected by Georgia Avenue, University Boulevard and Veirs Mill Road, the community never boomed even with those major thoroughfares.

While Silver Spring, Bethesda and even Rockville blossomed, Wheaton just got old. After growing rapidly after World War II, the community, by the 1970s, began to look a little shabby. The central business district bordering the 30-year-old Wheaton Plaza was crumbling; parking lots were pitted with craters; and the storefronts begged for a coat of paint.

Wheaton is different in other ways. Housing prices for the brick ramblers on both sides of Georgia Avenue remained low even while those in other parts of the county skyrocketed, averaging just under $100,000 in 1986 -- 70 percent of the county average -- a planning department study showed. In recent years, as Metro has come closer to reality, prices have jumped in some areas 20 percent, local real estate brokers said.

While much of Montgomery County is white and middle class, Wheaton is a mix of white, black, Asian and Hispanic families, young people and senior citizens, modest homes and apartments, ethnic restaurants and small businesses that residents loyally patronize.

It is the type of community where there is a kosher pizzeria, a Chinese bakery, Vietnamese, Salvadoran and Thai restaurants, a magic shop and a vacuum repair store all within blocks of each other.

"There are a lot of little specialty shops . . . and you can walk to all of them," said Jane Schafritz, who has lived in the community for 20 years.

To preserve Wheaton's small-town character in the wake of Metro's opening, the community and planning department adopted a zoning plan that discourages high-intensity development, but not all new development, in the central business area for 10 years. To preserve street life in the area, the zoning plan also requires any new building taller than one story to devote part of the first floor to retail use; requires that all retail stores in new buildings be directly accessible from a sidewalk or plaza; and restricts blank walls and facades at street level.

"The rationale was to preserve the flavor of Wheaton," said planner William R. Barron, who has worked with the community in preparing for the Metro since 1978. "Everybody realized that when the Metro opened {Wheaton} would start to change in the way of Bethesda," which saw massive development around its Wisconsin Avenue station.

When the restrictions on development expire in 10 years, Barron and business leaders said, Wheaton could see the same type of high-density building as other areas.

"Right now, a lot of projects are being put on the back burner," said Charles "Chuck" Boynton, executive director of the Wheaton-Kensington Chamber of Commerce. But, he said, a number of parcels are quietly being assembled by local businesspeople who want to be in position when the economy rebounds. "It's just a matter of time," he said.