A group of downtown merchants is petitioning the city to devise a new parking plan for the old central business district, but their pleas express a more desperate, though unstated, concern.

The response from city officials should be watched closely for some clue to their understanding of the real problem and their capacity to address it in some meaningful way.

In short, the 27 petitions are appeals for help in maintaining the viability of the downtown shopping area until the city's and developers' plans for the area can be fully developed and implemented. The merchants' call for a novel--for the District at least--parking plan is only symptomatic of a greater problem.

And the real problem is declining sales--notwithstanding a recent report from the Greater Washington Board of Trade that retail sales of downtown stores have improved substantially in recent months. That may be true for a number of merchants who are members of the board's retail bureau, but some of the petitioners who wrote to Mayor Barry earlier this month indicate otherwise.

Because of their size, reputation and ability to offer broader varieties of merchandise, larger downtown retailers such as Woodward & Lothrop Inc., Hecht's and Garfinckel's can attract more customers and sustain high sales levels. Besides, Woodies' investment in an underground connector to Metro's principal subway station under its downtown store and Hecht's parking garage offer shoppers conveniences that smaller retailers can't match.

In any event, several retailers are convinced that a radical change in the parking pattern will alleviate the source of their problems. They may be correct, but their idea of immediate relief would superimpose a Smalltown USA tableau on downtown Washington, a notion that may be impractical if not objectionable to some.

In their petitions to the mayor--accompanied by an appeal for support from Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), chairman of the Senate D.C. subcommittee on appropriations--the merchants ask for angled parking "to replace outmoded and inefficient" parallel parking on some streets.

Although the efficacy of their plan is yet to be proven, the petitioners contend that it would generate more business, jobs and taxes and enable the downtown retail core to compete more favorably with suburban shopping centers. Moreover, they insist their plan would provide twice as many parking spaces downtown and would help the convention center.

The petitions underscore the findings of a recent Washington Post poll that most area residents prefer to shop at suburban centers where parking is free and plentiful. The petitioners blame the city's parking policies and charge District officials with doing "little to help meet this competition from suburban centers and loss of jobs and businesses."

Despite an apparent show of unity on the issue, some store managers who signed the petitions aren't sure that angled parking is really the answer. In fact, some admitted signing and not reading the petitions. They agree, nonetheless, that something must be done soon about parking or sales will decline further.

"The whole thing is, you don't have enough parking around here, and if a customer comes in to shop, he has a ticket on his car before he can finish shopping," complains Ali Eshqsi, manager of Dash's Designer men's apparel at 1309 F Street NW. "Customers complain left and right, and that reduces our business."

The problem for Melart Jewelers at 601 13th Street NW is that there is no metered parking at all near the store, said manager Robert Getz. What's more, parking at lots and garages in the area is almost prohibitively expensive, he added.

Even though they might not agree on a specific parking plan, it's clear that most small merchants in the old retail core are desperate for some immediate changes, notwithstanding the city's long-range plans for a "living downtown." "Parking is something people ought to talk about because it is a problem," says Herman DelRosario, manager of Hahn Shoes at 1221 F Street NW. In fact, adds DelRosario, quite correctly, there is a serious need for merchants, city officials and others to engage in a broader dialogue on mass transportation, parking and other issues that affect merchants in areas east of 15th Street NW.

Initiating that kind of dialogue within their own ranks would be a logical beginning, but Washington's merchants lack the organizational structure for tackling the problem. Ad hoc committees collecting signatures on a petition is no substitute for a strong downtown merchants association. Nor is the Board of Trade's retail bureau, which represents members only.

Angle parking may be a solution, but a strong downtown merchants association seems like a better idea for now.