Fairfax City officials have been looking for ways to show they are serious about a $170 million redevelopment of their downtown, hoping to convince doubting Thomases that one day their stores, offices and restaurants will be the equal of Old Town Alexandria and historic Leesburg when it comes to quaint charm.

Yesterday, they got their first chance.

As a wrecking ball and bulldozers swung into action outside a low-slung brick shopping center in the heart of downtown Fairfax, the mayor stepped forward to mark the occasion.

"Behind you here is 1950s-style schlock," John Mason declared, to no one's disagreement. "What we are about today is a renaissance of the city . . . the first of many steps."

That said, the transformation of the old University Shopping Center, at the corner of Main Street and Old Lee Highway, was official. Down came a barbershop, an auto parts store and a package shipping center, soon to be followed by the old Pfaltzgraff outlet. They'll be replaced by Harris Teeter, a trendy two-story grocery store that city officials say will appeal to the Fresh Fields crowd. The new shopping center will also have additional retail stores and restaurants.

T.J. Maxx, a discount clothier, will remain but will get a face lift, as will a bagel store and other shops. Before long, possibly as early as next fall, what had been an eyesore two blocks from Fairfax County's police and courthouse complex will be transformed into an appealing shopping and dining destination, developers say.

That's only the beginning, according to Fairfax City leaders.

In the next few years, they hope the four-block downtown area will attract a 16-screen movie theater, big-name retailers such as the Gap and Abercrombie & Fitch, a college bookstore, coffeehouses and elegant restaurants. Sketches of the city's envisioned new downtown show brick sidewalks, wide streets and upscale facades.

Despite yesterday's promising start, renovation of Fairfax City's downtown is not a sure thing. Some residents have complained that a 16-screen movie house is too much for the tiny area, and others say that the traffic from a revitalized downtown would overwhelm the city.

Already, they say, commuters from elsewhere clog the city's roads each morning and evening as they go to and from work. New shops will simply attract more outsiders and additional unwanted traffic, in their view.

City officials and developers say they plan to redirect some traffic around the downtown area and to widen main roads in the city.

But they concede there are still challenges.

"It's not a done deal," said City Council member Scott Silverthorne. "The devil's in the details. . . . It's a complex project that needs a lot of scrutiny by the council."

Officials will conduct public hearings early next year, with a vote by the council on the overall $170 million renovation perhaps as early as spring, civic leaders said.

CAPTION: The old University Shopping Center in Fairfax City is torn down by Berg Corp. of Baltimore, making way for new shops.