Only a few years ago, before the big upsurge in office space demand and construction in 1977, the District dominated the commercial leasing scene, accounting for about 2 million square feet of new space. Northern Virginia and Maryland added another 1 million or 1.5 million square feet.

Now downtown Washington office demand and construction has surged near 3 million square feet annually. But Northern Virginia office building and light industrial space construction may jump to an estimated 3.5 million square feet in 1980, while the projection in nearby Maryland exceeds 2 million new square feet.

The office leasing market has been unusually strong, even with rising prices the past two years. But there are some quiety voiced fears that this metropolitan area may be unable to absorb an estimated 8 million square feet in new space next year despite the pre-leasing of more than 2.5 million square feet.

In a recent review and forecast for leasing specialists of the Washington Board of Realtors economist and developer Robert Gladstone emphasized that prospects in this area are unusually strong for the next two years. But he warned that an overabundance of new space might be created in fast-growing Northern Virginia if the general economy takes a significant downturn.

To date there is no evidence of the effects of a national recession in this area, Gladstone reported. But he also recognized that construction borrowing rates, which are tied to the prime, have increased by at least 3 percentage points in the past year and that more than 3.5 million square feet of new space will come onto the Northern Virginia market in 1980.

Gladstone pointed out that the increasing demand for higher-priced office and commercial space in the District already has increased leasing activity in the suburban areas, where leasing rates now are $4 to $6 a square foot less than in the District.

Uncertaintites facing area building developers and leasing specialists include prospects for the creation of nearly 8 million square fee of new space in 1980, how much space may be sought by Uncle Sam's General Services Administration, whether new leasing rates that top $17 a square foot will turn off tenants and just how much subleased space might glut the market.

New office leasing has become so inflation-related in recent years that major users tend to make long-term contracts for more space than is need at the moment. In turn, that space is sublet on short-term leases that enable the tenant to retake the space if the tenant's business grows and more space is required. "It's a hedge against inflation," Gladstone commented. "And it could have a boomerang effect in time of a fairly severe recession."

Additionally Gladstone and other leasing specialists agreed that the main action in the use of new space comes from local growth rather than from users moving into the area.

Meanwhile, Fernando Barruetta, chairman of the Board of Realtors leasing committee, said that use of new space has doubled throughout the metro area in the past two years and that the most recent survey showed more than 8 million square feet of new space likely to be available in 1980. He said that more than 2.5 million feet already have been leased. But the 3.8 million feet of upcoming new space in Northern Virginia, where recent growth has been strongest, may overwhelm the market if any belt-tightening takes place.

Almost all new leases and construction plans are based on private -market tenants who now pay $16 to $18 a square foot in the District and $11 to $12 a foot in the suburbs for higher-quality space. Most leases now include escalation clauses for increases in relation to the cost of living and also for operating expenses and risisng taxes.

In recent months, intown growth patterns have moved east of 15th Street. Northern Virginia activity has been strongest in Tysons Corner and Crystal City.

ON REALTY ROW: Negotiations are under way for the American Psychiatric Association to acquire the old Ambassador Hotel (vacant several months) from JBG Associates as the site for a new head-quarters office building.

After 37 years of service, Robert F. McConkey has left a senior vice president post at Perpetual Federal S&L to head for the Gettysburg area where he plans to build a new home.

And 37-year-veteran Robert C. Coon has retired as director of the national loan guaranty program of the Veterans Administration. His deputy is Albert W. Glass.

Dean Hanson has replaced John Guinee as president of the Yeonas Co., a major home building firm owned by Olin Corp. Guinee plans to do consulting work.

More than one million square feet of new space was started or finished in Reston in 1979.

GestInvest, a Belgian developer, plans a 146-acre industrial park east of Dulles Airport.

The National Wildlife Federation has started a $7.3 million addition to its education center on 43 acres west of Tysons Corner on Leesburg Pike. t