In Ballston, the search is on for the sweet sounds of success.

For commuters battling torn streets in the redeveloping Arlington community, mom and pop retailers receiving eviction notices and middle-income residents searching for affordable housing, Ballston is the unmistakable din of jackhammers and heavy equipment.

But Arlington County officials and developers with a stake in the project are thinking more about the future strains of lunch-time string quartets and free weekend jazz along Stuart Street, the area's designated "festival street." Such performances are among the features planned for Ballston in an effort to make Ballston, in the words of the district's marketeers, "the ideal place to live, work and play.

Which sound prevails depends in part on how the dust settles in a troubled local economy and the success of so-far minimal efforts to stabilize housing costs.

"In one sense I think the quality of life has really dropped," said John Reeder, a longtime resident of the Ballston-Rosslyn corridor and secretary of Tenants of Arlington County Inc., a tenant rights group. "Lower-income tenants who had a decent place to live have been kicked out. I don't see that as gain for the community."

Still, despite economic gloom that threatens several key projects, the emerging Ballston by any measure must be rated an improvement over the sins of redevelopment efforts like those in Rosslyn and Crystal City, long considered hallmarks of poor planning and suburban displacement.

"It's a little like raising your third kid," said James B. Warkentin, president of Warkentin Co. Realtors in McLean. "You ought to get better with more practice," added Warkentin, who is active in the Ballston residential market.

What began in pre-revolutionary times as Ball's Tavern and Black Smith Shop at the midpoint between the ports of Georgetown and Alexandria (roughly Wilson Boulevard and Glebe Road) today is 20 square blocks of prime suburban real estate bordered by North Quincy Street on the east side, Randolph Street and Henderson Road on the south, Glebe Road on the west and Washington Boulevard on the north.

The commercial district forms a bull's eye ringed by single-family homes mostly built in the suburban expansion of the 1950s. The area is quickly changing from solid middle class to more affluent residents.

For the past five years, the area has been a developer's dream. To date, 3 million square feet of new office space has sprouted in Ballston, more than half of that since 1986. Another 624,000 square feet of space is under construction, with 3.5 million square feet more approved and yet to be built.

The commercial center also hosts 2,045 condominium units and apartments, all built since 1986. Another 1,200 are under construction and 1,000 more have been cleared for construction.

By local suburban development standards, Ballston is a solid success despite its rapid construction pace. In contrast to the concrete and glass office jungles of Crystal City and the haphazard low-rise sprawl of Tysons Corner, Ballston seems an oasis of forethought. The district is architecturally handsome compared with neighboring suburban centers. A county requirement that half of all new developments be set aside for housing promises to avoid some of the traffic snarls dogging much of Northern Virginia because at least part of the people who live there would also work and shop there.

As a result, many Ballston projects have met with uncommon success. Summerwalk, a collection of 172 condominiums completed in 1986, sold out with surprising speed. Ground has barely been broken on the Jefferson, a luxury condominium complex for senior citizens, yet the project's developer, Marriott Corp., already has received 3,000 deposits for the project's 350 units.

Although hundreds of thousands of square feet of commercial space remains unleased, space in several key projects is virtually sold out.

For residents and developers watching a Ballston skyline that seems to change weekly, the question was never whether the area would be redeveloped, but when. Metro answered the question in 1979, when it opened its Ballston station, which served as the end of the Orange Line for nearly five years, automatically targeting Ballston as the region's next redevelopment bonanza. Yet it wasn't until the mid-1980s that construction erupted.

In the interim, change stubbornly bypassed Ballston. Developers seeking proximity to downtown still had room to build in Crystal City and Rosslyn along the Potomac, and in Arlington's Courthouse district just west of Rosslyn. Developers wooing refugees from urban life chose to build farther out, toward Tysons Corner and Fairfax. Ballston, it seemed, was stuck in between.

Enter Ballston Partnership. Created in 1984 to kindle interest in Ballston, the partnership today consists of county government, commercial development and neighborhood interests converging in no fewer than 20 committees on everything from tenant rights to marketing of the redeveloped community.

Too close to the city to sell itself as an urban refuge and too far out to offer the access of a Crystal City, Ballston anointed itself the region's first mixed-use mecca, a quilt-work of offices, homes and shops, and as a pedestrian's haven in the land of the automobile.

The concept caught fire in 1986, when the partnership snared the national headquarters of United States Life Insurance Co. as Ballston's first big-name tenant. At the same time, May Centers Inc. began its transformation of the region's first drive-in shopping center -- Parkington Mall -- into the 656,000-square-foot shopping haven that is now Ballston Common.

How successful Ballston has been at preserving a sense of community over the past five years, however, and what kind of community is being created there remains an issue. On one hand, the county and neighborhood factions have been remarkably successful at preserving community interests in the face of intense commercial lobbying.

"It's amazing that Ballston today is very true to its original {master} plan," said John Kinney, a member of the Arlington County Housing Commission and part of the advisory group that helped draft that master plan in 1978. "A lot of people said they {local officials} wouldn't get the things they were looking for, but they did."

At the time, the county's redevelopment record by all accounts was one of developers simply naming their game and local government acquiescing. The result was the comparatively shoddy construction and mass displacement of Rosslyn and Crystal City.

As William Condo, executive director of the Ballston Partnership, said, "We didn't want just banks and ATMs on the ground floor, we wanted shops and boutiques. It had to have a pedestrian orientation."

In Ballston, "Arlington wanted housing, because there was a dearth of housing of any kind {in new developments} at that point," said Alexander "Sandy" Keyes, chairman of Ballston Partnership's urban design committee and past president of the Ballston-Virginia Square Civic Association.

"Now everyone's realizing that it's market housing, which has its place," Keyes said. "But we need to shift the focus a little."

Indeed, Ballston's newer residential projects abound with track lighting, $1,000-a-month rents and $200,000 to $300,000 price tags. Many of those projects came at the expense of modest garden apartments and lower-income housing, and little has been done to preserve a balance.

"There is the issue of how you preserve and enlarge the moderate-income housing that was built here in the Fifties and Sixties," Condo said. "We haven't solved that yet."

Displacement among small businesses in the area also has been rampant. In a pattern repeated throughout Ballston, the miniature golf course at Wilson Boulevard and Glebe Road has moved out, replaced by the Jefferson's luxury condos. Around the corner, Jacque's Cafe, with its sidewalk tables and pricey fare, has moved in.

Even Ballston's upscale projects are far from safe in the face of the sagging local economy. One financier, the Bank of New England, recently pulled its money out of Ballston, leaving the Millenium project, which was to house 184 condominium units, foundering.

An auction for the property was scheduled in October but was postponed indefinitely, according to Thomas Parker, the county's economic development chief and a member of the Ballston Partnership's board.

The neighborhood's massive Stuart Park project, between Wilson Boulevard and Fairfax Drive, and the nearby Vermont Square commercial site both recently fell into limbo when Oracle Corp., a California software maker plagued by poor financial results in the last two quarters, indefinitely postponed plans to move into 900,000 square feet of space as the anchor tenant in both projects.

Across Wilson Boulevard from Ballston Commons Mall, in the backyard of the Ballston Partnership's offices, Lincoln Towers, a 714-unit apartment complex, stubbornly pushes skyward despite a dangerously soft residential real estate market. Some people familiar with the development of Ballston were left to wonder where tenants will come from and whether they will arrive in time to salvage the project.

And Ballston remains a tough sell to downtown D.C. tenants and developers, from which the area must continue to draw if it is to fill new space.

"We've taken to picking them up in a van and driving them out" for regular tours of available Ballston space, said Jennifer Tepper, head of Ballston Partnership's marketing committee.

Still, there are signs that Ballston is as well-positioned to weather its various storms as any of the region's redevelopment districts. As commercial leases expire in Rosslyn and Crystal City, more than a few tenants have opted for the prettier environs of Ballston, giving that district an additional source of new business in a depressed commercial real estate market.

Small businesses that have survived during Ballston's redevelopment are now benefiting from developers forced to court them to fill new space. Food for Health, a small natural foods shop evicted twice since 1984 but determined to remain in Ballston, recently signed a lease calling for six months free rent and a custom-built store in the district's new Quincy Station project.

"The Korean restaurant down the block got a year free rent," said Elvie Sighaus, Food for Health's owner.

Even on the housing front, there are efforts, albeit minimal, aimed at preserving affordability.

In Hyde Park, a 450,000-square-foot commercial and 222-unit residential project to be built where garden apartments now stand, the developer, the Washington Corp., has agreed to subsidize rents for 10 years on 27 apartments set aside for tenants earning 50 percent to 80 percent of the Washington area's median income.

Arlington County has agreed to subsidize about 3 percent of the 159 apartments in the planned Birch's Crossroads project in Ballston, keeping rents 15 percent to 20 percent below market rates. Birch's Crossroads Associates, the project's developer, will add additional subsidies to further discount the rental rates, Kinney said.

Even tenants themselves, who until now simply packed and moved as rents rose, are beginning to lobby.

The Pollard Garden Tenants Association recently launched efforts to alter the county's General Land Use Plan to prohibit high-rise development where the building's 124 low- and middle-income apartments now stand. Whether that change, if successful, would block redevelopment of the site remains to be seen, but the fact that tenants have begun to speak out is "hopeful," said tenants' advocate Reeder.