What's to become of downtown Washington?

The Greater Washington Board of Trade began to answer that question last week when it issued "Downtown -- A People Place," the result of a year-long study by the business community of the city's core.

What's heppening, the Board of Trade found, is that downtown is rapidly being reborn. By the end of the decade much of the center city will be rebuilt and the rest will be ripe for redevelopment, its future already determined.

But more important than the answers provided by the task force headed by developer Oliver T. Carr are the questions implicit in its slick 40-page report.

The first question is, "Who's in charge here?" The answer is, no one. The Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corp. is busy reshaping the southern edge of the central core. The Redevelopment Land Agency is planning a megaplex, with Carr as developer, atop the Metro Center subway station in the middle of town. The city is putting up a new convention center on the north edge.

The Rest of the 50-block core is out of control. Developers and speculators are free to build whatever the market will bear, wherever the zoning will permit and however the historic preservationists and community activists will tolerate.

For a committee headed by the city's biggest developer to question that "free market approach" is a sign of enlightenment worthy of praise. Mayor Marion Barry and City Council Chairman Arrington Dixon provided the paeans, endorsing, on the spot, the goals set by the Carr committee:

Develop a land use strategy that provides for special uses -- theaters, hotels, street vending, the arts.

Appoint a District government coordinator for downtown development.

Eliminate regulations and red tape that hamper the most desirable and innovate projects.

Encourage historic preservation with economic incentives.

Plan street improvement and new public spaces for the whole neighborhood.

Emphasize pedestrain access.

Maximize use of Metro and other public transit.

Establish a parking strategy.

Sponsor a downtown festival.

Upgrade the standards of street vendors.

"If this sounds a little grandiose, it is," Board of Trade President J. Pat Galloway admitted when the plan was unveiled. The committee studied on area bounded by the Pennsylvania Avenue redevelopment corridor on the south, 15th Street on the west, Third Street on east and New York and Massacheusetts avenue on the north.

Ambitious as the Board of Trade recommendations may be, the plan is still timid about some of the toughest questions facing downtown. And wrapped in the lauditory goals are a few "gimmes" to which the city ought to say no, and a lot of assumptions that ought to be questioned before they are written in stone or zoning regulations.

The most obvious shortcoming of "Downtown -- A People Place" is how little attention it gives to downtown as a place for people to live. Housing is all but ignored, presumably on the premise that central city real estate is too costly to build apartments on and no one wants to live there anyway.

There may be neither demand nor economic justification for housing in the blocks west of Eight Street, but the east end of downtown and many blocks adjoining the central business district could and should support high density residential developments.

To some extent, the downtown study suffers the same shortsigthtedness it implicity criticizes in the Pennsylvania Avenue project -- ignoring activity just outside the target area's boundaries.

The Board of Trade also fails to come to grips with the most difficult question in downtown -- what to do about preserving historic buildings? Another survey of structures worth preserving is needed, another review of preservation legislation. Nothing in the report suggests how the confrontation between bulldozers and building lovers can be ended.

The Board of Trade study is at its best in urging some way to provide the special amenities, the landmarks, the excitement that make a city something more than an urban office park, like K Street west of Connecticut Avenue.

People are the key to a successful city neighborhood. If people don't live downtown, there must be something to draw them there after 5 o'clock and on the weekends.

The federal landmarks are the most important attraction now, Sunday shopping helps, the convention center will contribute and an ambitious special events program with street fairs, concerts and sundry happenings can be a major factor.

The National Theater, Ford's Theater and The Warner are as important for the people they draw as for the culture they provide, and downtown dearly needs more such activities. A couple of first-run flagship movie houses would be important assets, but unless the city does something to facilitate their construction, theaters aren't likely to be built, the Board of Trade warns. It's simply more profitable to put in office space than to carve a major movie hall out of valuable downtown real estate.

The same thing is true, to a lesser extent, of major retail development. Office space can be rented before it's built, but stores, particularly big stores, require aggressive marketing and special planning to be successful.

But while retailing may not offer the best return for a developer's dollar, it is among the most taxable businesses the city can attract. A couple more major department stores would provide the critical mass to set off a chain reaction for downtown retailing, if the city can somehow encourage the construction.

Among the most creative ideas offered for downtown is a new trolley system with a north-south loop linking the convention center and the Federal Triangle and an east-west loop to move people into the retail core. If street cars from the Trolley Museum in Montgomery County were used, as some have earlier suggested, the system would be both functional and fun.

But the route suggested for the east-west loop, on F and G streets NW, would run the trolley tracks right down the middle of the only two all-pedestrain blocks in downtown. The Streets for People project has never been popular with the business community, and this would wipe it out once and for all. There must be a better route.

Also worthy of some suspicion is the call for "upgrading the standards" the street vendors, which likely means forcing bootstrap capitalists out of business.

Finally there's the repeated suggestion in the Board of Trade report that federal funds could answer some of downtown's problems, by financing street improvements, preservation and planning. Even ignoring the message of President Reagan's election, the city ought to learn the most important lesson of the downtown study -- it wasn't the government that pointed out what needs to be done downtown, and it won't be the government that gets it done.