Craven Hughes has a theory. It's a theory that hasn't exactly caught fire, a theory, in fact, that prompted his banker to suggest that Hughes has rocks where his brains ought to be.

Hughes, a Fairfax County land developer, thinks the Rte. 1 corridor in Fairfax -- a 7.5-mile strip of fast food outlets, trailer parks and budget motels stretching south from the Capital Beltway to Fort Belvoir -- is ripe for something better.

He bases his proposition on the fact that Richmond Highway (as Rte. 1 is known in Fairfax) is bounded by some of the Washington area's wealthiest neighborhoods, many of them in the Mount Vernon area of Fairfax near George Washington's estate.

But when Hughes approached his banker two years ago with the idea of bringing a snazzy new mall of specialty shops and white linen restaurants to the tawdry canvas of Richmond Highway, the lender gave him a funny look.

" 'Have you got rocks in your head?' " Hughes remembers the lender asking. "He says, 'What . . . are you trying to build that on Rte. 1 for?' "

It's a question that underlines the problems of Fairfax County's most blighted commercial corridor. Although the banker eventually relented and Hughes' project is under way, the doubts about Richmond Highway's ultimate chance for renewal hang over the road like a fog.

As Fairfax's economy surged in the past decade and the county became one of the United States' wealthiest localities, Rte. 1 seems to have been left behind.

There have been some changes: The L.A. Cafe, a strip joint notorious for its beery brawls, was closed this year; a number of shopping centers have gotten face lifts, and land prices are rising.

But the essential character of the corridor remains unchanged, a legacy of neglect, fractious local political debate, and helter-skelter patterns of zoning and land ownership. The crime rate along the highway is also one of the highest in Northern Virginia, and there are more automobile accidents and fatalities there than on the parallel stretch of I-95, which carries more traffic.

Many, if not most, residents of southeastern Fairfax simply avoid Richmond Highway.

"Certainly, what's happened in the rest of the county has not happened on Route 1," said Gerald W. Hyland, the county supervisor-elect from Mount Vernon District who will take office Jan. 1.

Richmond Highway, like much of Rte. 1 from Maine to Florida, declined when I-95 was constructed after World War II and became the main thoroughfare leading to Washington from the South. Sporadic efforts to spruce up Rte. 1 by luring a major department store to the corridor failed.

In the early 1980s, Fairfax officials and business people, hoping to revitalize the corridor, created the nonprofit Southeast Fairfax Development Corp. But frustration and controversy have surrounded the organization in recent years, and Southeast Fairfax and county officials alike give the organization only passing marks in its bid to lure new business and clean up the corridor.

Today, the highway is a riot of overhanging utility wires, store signs of every shape and design, weedy lots, car dealerships and treacherous traffic. It is a challenge to think of a fast-food purveyor that does not have a foothold on the highway; most have several.

" 'Doing' lunch on Rte. 1 means going to the Dixie Pig Barbecue," said Sharon Kelso, who heads United Community Ministries, a nonprofit organization serving Rte. 1's poor and disadvantaged.

Richmond Highway's dilemma in some ways was symbolized earlier this year when the owners of the Sherwood Hall trailer park on Rte. 1, one of the corridor's half dozen or so mobile home parks, announced they were considering redeveloping the land.

When county officials heard the owners' plans for the land, they despaired. In place of the 42-home trailer park, the owners proposed building an Econo Lodge.

Not only would 42 low-income families be displaced by the project, but yet another budget motel would be added to the dozens that already line both sides of the highway.

"It's a hell of a choice," said one county official who asked not to be identified. "Either we're stuck with the trailer park, which not many people want but at least meets a need, or we're stuck with the motel, which nobody wants, either."

Ultimately, the owners aborted their plans after learning that another motel was about to be built a mile down the road. The trailer park will stay for the foreseeable future.

"I don't understand the county's feeling against motels . . . . They're perfectly attractive places," said J. Michael Burry, president of the Coastal American Corp., the real estate concern that owns the property. "Sure, the Hilton's not here, but I don't think there's a market for that."

Whether or not the market is there, some developers are cowed by the difficulty in assembling enough land to make a new project work.

The land along the highway is splintered into hundreds of parcels. Many are long slivers of land with a beachhead on Richmond Highway, sometimes just enough for a driveway. In the two-mile stretch of Rte. 1 running south from the Beltway, there are about 600 parcels on or near the highway, and perhaps half as many owners.

Hughes had to buy five separate parcels for his 4.5-acre shopping mall near Fort Belvoir, called Pear Tree Village. By the time he had assembled the land and acquired the necessary county approvals, six years had elapsed -- and he hadn't even broken ground.

Numerous projects along the corridor have been aborted because one or more landowner holding a strategically situated sliver of property refused to sell.

Moreover, under county zoning regulations, most landowners are permitted to use their land for just about any type of commercial venture they please ("grab-bag zoning," in the derisive phrase of planning officials), as long as their buildings don't exceed four stories.

The regulations frustrate planners and politicians, who say they give the county little say in what kind of development occurs in the corridor, as well as developers and landowners, who say the height limit stunts their ability to turn a profit on the land.

The zoning regulations stay in place partly because landowners' property rights are enshrined in state law; any effort by the county to redo the corridor's zoning would be legally difficult.

Change would be even more daunting politically.

For one thing, sprucing up Rte. 1 would tend to speed the gentrification of neighborhoods that house low- and moderate-income families, planners say. Politicians and business leaders in the county frequently speak of a "crisis" in the availability of low-cost housing.

Several of the dowdier motels in the corridor, whose room charges run as low as $35 a night, serve as county-sponsored shelters for the poor. Their removal for the sake of redevelopment would mean a scarcer supply of affordable dwellings.

Likewise for trailer parks. When Mount Vernon Supervisor T. Farrell Egge endorsed the sale of the county-owned Woodley-Nightingale trailer park two years ago, there ensued an uproar from trailer residents and others who feared the park would be swept away by private owners. Egge was forced to change his position -- an episode that political analysts think contributed to his defeat at the polls last month.

But opposition to revitalization comes not only from those of modest means. The same zoning restrictions governing the height of buildings that developers consider cumbersome are looked upon by many Mount Vernon residents as a safeguard from what they call "mindless" overdevelopment.

"We should be controlling development rather than putting out incentives for further development," said Benjamin R. Eggeman, a retired Navy officer and a leading civic activist in the Mount Vernon area.

It was opposition from Eggeman and others on the powerful Mount Vernon Council of Citizens Associations that killed a developer-backed effort to ease the four-story height limit last year.

That same group of vocal, highly organized activists confronted Southeast Fairfax Development last summer and pressed the County Board of Supervisors to adopt changes in the organization's charter designed to make it more responsive to local residents.

Unlike county officials and developers, who see the potential for revenue and profits in the highway's revitalization, many local residents fear revitalization will mean one thing only: horrific traffic. The residents say they are not opposed to all development, but would rather see Richmond Highway remain a corridor for through traffic, not a destination for commuters.

"There is a limit to how much you can use the road for employment," said Eggeman, the community activist. "We want to keep the commercial growth from encroaching on residents.

"It's a bustling, vibrant place, and the fact that it is not as scenic as Fair Oaks doesn't disturb me that much."

Despite the Mount Vernon Council's protests to the contrary, several county politicians say bluntly that the chief obstacle to redevelopment along Rte. 1 is simply pervasive antidevelopment sentiment.

Said Joe Alexander, supervisor for Lee District, just west of Rte. 1, "I think no-growth is probably a pretty good characterization" of the Mount Vernon Council.

Eggeman points to the large amount of sparsely used land along the corridor that is zoned for commercial use as the real threat to Rte. 1. "People ought to be concerned about what it might become unless there's some planning done," he said.

In that spirit of planning, the county last year launched an "urban design" study to devise some suitable goals for the corridor.

A pamphlet describing the aim of the study was produced, but nothing further has been heard about the study. One planner said the study was put on hold because of "competing priorities," explaining that the county staff was "stretched too thin." But some area residents think the study was held up because it was bound to produce a political hot potato in an election year.

Hyland, the county supervisor-elect, said he plans to see that the study is renewed when he takes office.

The outcome of the study notwithstanding, many who live near Richmond Highway or make their living there have no illusions that the corridor's problems will disappear quickly.

Most difficult of all, observers agree, Richmond Highway must overcome its own image.

In a recent interview, the first tenant to move into developer Hughes' elegant Pear Tree Village mall bristled when a visitor asked her about Rte. 1.

"I don't consider myself a Route 1 business," said Diane A. Thulin, owner of Diane's Carriage House and the Cottage at Pear Tree. Thulin could see the traffic on Richmond Highway as she spoke. "I'm a Mount Vernon business and there's a big distinction -- all in the mind of the beholder."

In her shop, a warm, cluttered environment of homey knick-knacks and fine china and crystal, elegant women browsed in long fur coats. "They're not Route 1 customers," she said in a whisper. "The women of this area are really some classy people, classy gals. But Route 1 is not our market; Mount Vernon is."