The first two buyers have just moved into houses in the newly named New Center Commons here. The department is the attempted resurrection of the once-princely but, until recently, decidedly slummy neighborhood abutting the General Motors Corp. headquarters.

Announced in September 1978 as a four-year project, the effort is "lagging now," but hopes are for completion on schedule, said Robert F. Gregory, a GM employe detailed to work for the New Center Development Partnership.

The project covers about 18 blocks north of the GM and Fisher buildings. With the New Center Office Building and the Henry Ford Hospital two blocks west, they comprise what is called the New Center area. Located two miles north of downtown Detroit, the area was envisoned as a second center for commercial activity when it was begun 50 years ago.

As an alternative to downtown business and shopping functions -- at least until now, when all the rules are being rewritten in the post-suburban mall age -- it has been a notable failure in accomplishing that.

Targeted for renewal by the development partnership in the area are approximately 125 homes and 175 apartment units. A good many privately owned homes and apartment buildings in and around the area are being upgraded and remodeled by others.

"The partnership provides those owners aid in getting specifications approved, design changes and other plans," Gregory said.

A small shopping and service center, which will include some new, subsidized housing for the elderly, will be announced soon.

Seven of the homes listed on the most recent price chart ranged from $77,500 to $82,000; the eighth is listed at $118,000.

Most of the houses, including some town houses, which are not common in Detroit, were built between 1890 and the 1920s. And many of the Victorian-style smaller houses through mansion-size Georgian structures have features no longer being built into American housing.

They have oak doors set in finely cast concrete, hand-carving and inlays on fireplaces, stairways and decorative crests. Some have enormous, ornate bathtubs and washbasins; oak flooring; windows with leaded, beveled glass panes; and lighting fixtures and cast doorknobs that would qualify as antiques in most auctions.

Then there are the stately trees in the neighborhood, 70- and 100-year-old oaks and elms among them, just starting to bloom.

Before being sold, the houses are restored as much as possible to their original condition, with a few changes. Lots of new insulation is used; kitchens often are modernized with appliances such as garbage disposals; new furnaces are often put in, with additional duct works.

Security in the neighborhood is a critical but delicate topic: Steel rear doors are being installed on some houses, total alarm systems in other places. Lower windows are being replaced with unbreakable glass or plastic in some structures, and extra lighting is being installed all around.

Mark Coir, who works for the Burton Historical Library, and his wife, Marlene, said they considered the homes outstanding buys but decided not to purchase one because of increasing property taxes and the enormous heating bills.

When they do buy, they'll probably look for something smaller than they had earlier considered, Coir said.

Project manager Gregory says he thinks the interest rates far outrank other considerations in the slow going thus far. But "they've affected everyone in the metro Detroit area," he added.

Since the weather has made its trraditionally episodic Detroit-style spring efforts to improve, traaaffic in the models has picked up considerably, he said.

During January and February just five or six people were wandering through but "now we've started to get about 100 each weekend," he said.

So far, those looking had heard about the project through news stories, word-of-mouth or simply driving by. "In April we're going to start advertising," Gregory said. That will be done in Detroit's two daily papers and specialized smaller weeklies like the Medical Center News, the Downtown Monitor and the New Center News. Those latter narrower-interest papers have a substantial following in Detroit and are read by the people the project developers feel are the primary market for their housing.

Gregory McDuffee, a leading broker for the project, says he's seen wide interest from a "tremendous cross-section of Detroiters," including "an awful lot of people with children who want their children to grow up in an urban, not a sheltered, environment."

"Further, it's hard to find a five- or five-and-a-half bedroom house in suburbia for $100,000," McDuffee says. "I think the neighborhood will be established as a stable neighborhood" and that the houses are just "a helluva good buy."

Some of the problems thus far have been a result of the negative news attention focused on the people being dislocated, McDuffee said. He adds he is confident that will pass.

Involved in the project is $3.4 million in federal money. A senior civil servant close to the project who asked that his name not be used offers a unique viewpoint. When he first heard of it, he expected that "GM would do it better and faster" than the government has done in the past. "Not so," he says now. "They've had every problem, every delay we've had," adding that such problems did not particularly please him.

All of the plusses in this tale of urban renaissance should not be taken without a touch of salt.

Detroit's youth gangs, for instance, while not especially visible in the area, have left their traditional calling cards. Sprayed graffiti announced the presence of "Doc. Strange" and "G T Diamond" and "dirty gold." Even the very attractive unit Gregory's people work in backs across its alley to a miserable-looking but possibly high-potential house. One day last week that house featured two free-standing car doors leaning against its front wall.

The driving force behind the redevelopment is General Motors Corp., which is the general partner leading 14 other, limited partners. Those are the huge Canadian development company, Trizec; Detroit banks and utilities; Ford Motor; and Burroughs.

The price tag of the project has been talked about as "in excess of $20 million" and probably will end up close to $30 million.

Nearly three years ago, a top GM executive said the picture looked pretty bleak if the automaker made tons of money -- as it was doing quite well back then -- but had its headquarters and people working in the midst of urban decay. So the New Center renewal project was begun with the specific intention to save a section of the city.

The idea was that if it could be done, GM would write an internal book on how to do it and spread that book to its division cities like Flint and Saginaw for them to emulate.

The first thing GM found was that the execution would be vastly more difficult than imagined; the second was that everyone with an interest in the area from small store managers to priests, cops and doctors had to be involved.

The book has not yet been written.

Nearby, but unrelated except geographically, Trizec has a large office building in the latter stages of completion.The Canadian developer, which already owns the Fisher building and the New Center building is spending "in excess of $50 million" for a unique eight-story office and retail complex which will feature an atrium. A 10-level, 1,700-car parking deck next to the Fisher Building has just been completed.

The new office building will boast 82,000 square feet for retail shops and 65,000 square for offices and will open in about 18 months. A pedestrian skywalk is expected to connect all four buildings sometime in the near future.

"In my opinion, things will start to pick up in a couple of months," Gregory said. One broker has told him they should sell 100 or 105 houses this year, he says.

The weather break has let work begin on roofs, something that held back much interior work because of potential water damage. Simultaneously, work on roads and smaller, park-like amenities has begun.

Pallister, for instance, is going to be closed off completely and made into a green mall with residents relying on wide alleys for driving and service access.

Such changes are highly visible and will soon become even more so.

Whether 100 of the houses are sold or not, the success of the New Center Commons as a community is an open question at this point. At the same time, it is a profound question for the future of America's aging urban centers.