The late 20th Century transformation of this graceful Southern capital into a bustling regional center of banking and commerce prompted sponsors of a symposium on the future of its downtown to ponder the question, "The Next Atlanta or the First Richmond?"

The answer, according to Richard T. Reinhard, executive director of the Central Richmond Association, which sponosred last week's symposium, is that "no native Richmonder wants this to be the next Atlanta."

But the fact that "a lot of people are saying that" about this medium-sized city (population 210,000, metro area 800,000) is the cause of civic pride, as well as concern, Reinhard said.

"We have a lot of big projects like Atlanta," he said, "but we have an awful lot of small, older buildings with character. We don't want to lose that."

Richard J. Bradley, president of the International Downtown Association, told the 100 participants, "you are on the top, the challenge is how to stay on a roll."

Bradley advised Richmonders to "look for smaller chunks" of development in the future, and rather than emulate Atlanta, "look to Charlotte," which "twice has spent $80 million for housing," along with seeking new office buildings and industries.

The participants here agreed that housing should be the top item on the agenda at next year's symposium.

A total of 19 projects, 10 new and nine renovations, costing $300 million, are under construction in Richmond's 1.7-square-mile downtown. Another 14 buildings have been recently completed.

Perhaps the most daring project is Main Street Centre, two 23-story office buildings built entirely on speculation. The first of the twin towers, which together will contain one million square feet of space, will be ready for occupancy in June, although no tenant has been found.

Developers are hoping that in their gamble to fill the building with the headquarters of a single national firm, the third time will be a charm; they previously lost American Express and Royal Globe Insurance to cities in neighboring North Carolina.

"Richmond has been just a little too conservative sometimes," said the confident rental agent, Steven B. Brincefield, who sees Richmond "where D. C. was 20 years ago. We're getting ready to blossom into a major Southern city."

A long decline in the city's retail district has been reversed, sparked by the opening last fall of the Sixth Architect Frederic H. Cox Jr. said he doesn't want Richmond to become Atlanta, but "I don't want it to be Akron either. This is a medium-sized city of special character. It could be the San Francisco of the East." Street Marketplace, a $25 million, 66,000-square-foot enclosed mall. Its 100 small shops and restaurants wind along for three blocks, sandwiched between the city's two main department stores, and connecting to a restored theater that is the new home of the Richmond symphony and a soon-to-open convention center.

"They're not the old gray ladies of downtown anymore," city planning director Charles Peters said of Thalhimer's and Miller & Rhoads, the department stores that also gambled on a turnaround with extensive renovations.

The 1984 repeal of a Sunday-closing law, which had placed city merchants at a disadvantage with their competitors in suburban Henrico and Chesterfield counties, which earlier had lifted their blue laws, also has helped revitalize downtown. Retail sales in the city in 1984 totaled $1.7 billion, up 24 percent from the previous year.

Moreover, in the next 12 months, two chains will open luxury hotels in the financial district between Main Street and the James River.

A 16-story, 300-room Ramada Renaissance hotel is scheduled to open this spring, and early next year an Omni Classic Hotel will open as part of James Center, a six-building complex owned by the CSX Corp., whose first building, a 20-story bank building that opened last June, is 99 percent occupied.

In the planning stage is the Shockoe Plaza Hotel, a 150-room hostelry that would be part of a 375,000-square foot project of offices, shops and condominiums.

The chain that set off the boom was Marriott, which spent $44 million on a 16-story, 403-room hotel that opened in the fall of 1984. Bethesda-based Marriott bought land in an urban renewal site called Project One, which now also includes the Marketplace, and soon will be the locale of the city's new exhibition and convention hall.

Their locations on the north side of Broad Street are a tangible sign of change in Richmond. For decades, the center line of Broad Street unofficially separated shoppers by race; whites stayed largely south of it and blacks north of it.

A dramatic symbol of the end of that era is a pedestrian bridge, the focus of the Marketplace mall, that links the two sides of the street. And at ground level, the old double-yellow line has been replaced by a landscaped median.

Also scheduled to reopen this spring, on the edge of the retail district, is the Jefferson Sheraton Hotel, whose lobby staircase was immortalized as the mansion Tara in "Gone With The Wind" and whose interior more recently was the setting for the movie, "My Dinner With Andre." The 295-room Spanish-style hotel has undergone a $32 million renovation that will put it in a class, according to its owners, with the Sheraton-Carlton in Washington.

With the openings of the Jefferson, Ramada and Omni, downtown Richmond will have 2,440 hotel rooms, more than half of which will have opened since 1984.

The additional hotel space, and an 800-car parking garage, will be in place when the 152,000-square-foot convention and exhibition hall opens late next summer, adjacent to the 10,000-seat Richmond Coliseum.

Together, planners hope they will make Richmond a prime candidate for mid-sized regional and some national conventions. The first show scheduled for the new facility is the International Tobacco Festival, in September.

With retail, office and hotel development going full tilt, the next area of concern, according to those at the symposium, is housing.

A prime target for downtown residential redevelopment is Jackson Ward, a historically black neighborhood of 19th century homes, many of which feature elaborate ironwork and carved wood trim.

Since the Civil War, it has been a center of black life in the city. The home of Maggie Walker, first woman bank president in the United States, is a national historic landmark.

Developers also are salivating at the prospect of the razing of the century-old state penitentiary, which sits on high ground, commanding a panoramic view -- albeit not available to walled-in prisoners -- of the river and downtown. Gov. Gerald L. Baliles has set 1990 as a goal for shutting it down.

The next new housing in the area -- 265 apartments -- will come with the opening of the first phase of Tobacco Row, a 1.3-million-square-foot collection of 15 former tobacco warehouses, in which "the vast majority of the cigarettes in the world were made" at one time, according to Peters.

Much of the rebirth of the historic Shockoe Bottom area, which adjoins the already developed Shockoe Slip retail neighborhood, is tied to construction of a flood wall.

Nearby property owners, whose buildings were inundated in November in the second-worst flood in Richmond history, are talking about donating land for the wall. But three-fourths of the $78 million cost would come from the federal government, whose share is threatened by pending federal budget cuts.

One thing Richmond has in common with Atlanta is the cost of Class A office space. According to a survey published by the Central Richmond Association, it averaged $15.21 a square foot here, with a range of $15 to $22, compared with $18.49 in Atlanta, with a range of $13.50 to $25. (The District's comparable figures were $26.64, and $13.25 to $38).

The vacancy rate, which reflected some new space as yet unoccupied, was 21 percent last May, compared with 16.3 percent nationally.

The flip side of the growth is that several small, local firms, long downtown tenants, have fled the higher rent and parking spaces that cost $50 to $100 a month. Among those moving to the suburbs were two accounting firms, two life insurance agencies, and divisions of the gas and electric utilities.

Frederic H. Cox Jr., an architect active in downtown redevelopment, said he urges would-be developers, "don't tear it down." He said he doesn't want Richmond to become Atlanta, but "I don't want it to be Akron either. This is a medium-sized city of special character. It could be the San Francisco of the East."