Downtown Washington "once was the center of the city -- the center of the action, but its image and role have suffered over the past several decades in relation to other areas of the city and outlying suburban shopping centers."

The complaint of the disgruntled business owner? A critique by a bored shopper?

The answer on both counts is negative. Although many business people and customers may agree with the sentiment expressed above, the assessment of downtown Washington as a weak magnet compared with Georgetown or Springfield Mall comes from the District government itself.

As part of a useful and continuing dialogue that has been started on the fate of downtown in the nation's capital city, D.C. planning chief James O. Gibson issued a preliminary response last week to widely publicized Greater Washington Board of Trade prosposals earlier this year to make of the old retail core a "people place."

"The Board of Trade's proposals represent one aspect of what we anticipate will be a citywide procedure involving a broad range of citizens to develop plans for downtown development," Gibson stated in a letter to developer Oliver T. Carr Jr., head of a downtown committee for the business organization.

Gibson also revealed that Mayor Marion Barry Jr. soon will name a downtown advisory panel comprised of merchants, trade and professional groups, real estate interests, arts and humanities organizations and citizen associations. As part of comprehensive city development planning, the new advisory panel will be charged with drawing up specific strategy for proposed land use, recommendations on preservation of existing structures and suggestions for economic incentives.

In addition, Gibson's Office of Planning and Development plans to publish next month a report of its own on downtown, to serve as the basis for completing a final downtown action plan by the end of 1981. A series of public meetings will be scheduled during the spring and fall to examine alternatives for development, historic preservation, transportation, urban design, housing and other issues.

As construction on the D.C. convention center near Mt. Vernon Square moves ahead on schedule, discussions on the overall future of old downtown Washington have become a crucial issue. To date, there have been primarily polite exchanges. However, as surely as the sun will warm up Washington's pavements over the summer, a move heated debate over development is inevitable because of the money involved.

Both private and public sectors would gain from a successful development plan that brings life to the city's streets, but there are differences of opinion about what constitutes the proper mix of commercial and residential use. Indeed, there is a no agreement on whether there should be a residential component.

In its 40-page report, the Board of Trade significantly ignored housing as an integral downtown Washington issue, apparently because of assumptions that real estate in the city's center is too expensive for that type of development when commercial construction can bring a much higher return.

But Gibson emphasized last week that a residential community is an "important part of creating a living downtown." He said housing should be developed mainly as part of the Pennsylvania Avenue project and north of Massachusetts Avenue NW, outside the area that was the focus of the Board of Trade report.

In effect, Gibson seemed to be in agreement that there is little room for housing in the 50-block central city core studied by the Board of Trade. Where he differs is in overall scope. The private sector must participate in development of residential communities adjacent to the immediate downtown area, Gibson stated.

Indeed, the planning official noted that his office thinks of downtown as a larger area than does the Board of Trade. "As the downtown program moves forward, consideration needs to be given to the Franklin Square area north of New York Avenue, the portion of the Mt. Vernon Square area north of Massachusetts Avenue and Downtown East area, east of 3d Street," Gibson told Carr.

Repeatedly, in his response to the Board of Trade, Gibson was throwing out a challenge to the city's business community to take a larger view of its role. For example, the response to Carr stated that Washington business leadership, "which is predominantly white, should play a greater role in helping 'open the door' for additional small businesses, and especially for black and Latino businesses."

In addition, the government report cautioned the business leaders that they should not place too much emphasis on easing building height restrictions as a key to development. "Any proposal to increase the height limit raises emotional as well as design concerns," the city report stated. "Other elements of the downtown program promise greater results. . . We assume that any increase in height would only be granted in conjunction with design review procedures, rather than as a matter of right."

And the private sector must offer "immediate and substantial backing and organization" for proposed downtown festivals, designed as special events to honor Washington's cultural diversity and to bring people back downtown, the report said.

Finally, in an apparent use of carrot-and-stick diplomacy, Gibson called on the Board of Trade to become involved not only in downtown Washington development but also in other neighborhoods. "Aided by strategic and comprehensive planning, downtown revitalization can catalyze and reinforce initiatives under way along the 14th Street corridor, H Street NE, and in such areas as Minnesota and Benning avenues and Anacostia, which have increased economic value as a result of scheduled subway station openings," Gibson wrote.

The city government will attempt to use its limited resources, zoning regulations and tax policies to accelerate development which yields the highest level of tax revenues and jobs for its citizens. "We anticipate that the Board of Trade will pledge business community leadership and resources to these facets of overall city development and improvement as well as to downtown revitalization," Gibson's report concluded.

One way of translating the Gibson document is that business indeed may find the city cooperative in many of the Board of Trade's initiatives for rebuilding downtown, where there is the promise of good return on investments. But that cooperation may be more complete if the business community widens its horizons and thinks hard about development and minority business enterprise throughout the city.