Yet another potential dispute over development plans for downtown Washington has heightened fears among small-business owners that their operations may be in jeopardy. The issue this time is the size of a proposed historic district for part of the old commercial area.

More of them may be forced to quit downtown, some small-business operators worry, if developers are permitted to recommend changes in the boundaries of the proposed historic district.

Previous appeals by small-business owners to elected officials have resulted in an apparent closer working relationship with D.C. economic development officials. Nonetheless, some members of the small-business community are convinced that the city will allow developers to turn downtown Washington into a huge enclave of office buildings, devoid of a mix of uses that would result in a so-called "living downtown."

Frustrated by what they perceive as an absence of a clear development policy, some small-business owners are beginning to question the District's commitment to retaining a significant share of their sector in the old downtown area. Their frustration, in fact, led some small-business owners to adopt a position strongly favorable to establishment of a new historic district. They had hoped that by supporting historic preservation, they would be able to stem the tide of new development and thus strengthen their presence in older downtown areas.

Now they aren't certain, it seems, that historic preservation is the answer to survival. "There really aren't too many viable small businesses occupying buildings that would be protected in the proposed historic area," explained one merchant. In the meantime, he added, small-business owners are virtually helpless in staving off the advance by office developers.

Developers' interest in having the city change the boundaries of the proposed downtown historic district is just one more example, some small-business owners contend, of builders deciding how that area of the city will be developed.

"Washington is not a normal city," the owner of a three-store chain complained. "The well never runs dry. No matter how much empty office space there is, developers just keep building. Washington needs special care, and it's not getting it. The developers are going to build Washington the way they want to."

D.C. officials obviously have a different point of view. The comprehensive plan, a 20-year blueprint for economic development and land use, sets forth the city's policy governing the development process in key downtown sectors, a frustrated small-business owner was reminded recently.

"The mayor's comprehensive plan says it all, but they're not following it," he complained in an indictment of city officials. "There just doesn't seem to be any direction with the mayor and his staff. They're missing a golden opportunity" to ensure development of a so-called living downtown.

The comprehensive plan establishes a target of 35 million square feet of private office space in downtown, a staggering increase over the nearly 14 million square-foot base that city officials identified last year.

It is worth noting, nevertheless, that developers of the comprehensive plan acknowledge in the document that the city will need to give some direction to office development of that magnitude. Indeed, because market forces tend to favor office development over other uses, the District emphasized in a declaration of major policies, "office development must be directed to ensure that the land-use targets for retail, hotel, residential, arts and cultural space are met."

The role of small businesses is emphasized in a further policy declaration to achieve a "desired diversity and vitality" downtown. "Measures should be supported to retain existing small businesses and to foster growth opportunities for new and existing small businesses. Actions must be taken to assist small and minority businessess in downtown. . . . Efforts should be made to retain existing small businesses that are displaced by new development projects in downtown through, for example, a requirement to incorporate these businesses into the new projects, incentives to incorporate these businesses into new projects, or through relocation assistance to enable these businesses to relocate within the downtown retail core."

The Barry administration has begun implementing the downtown elements of the comprehensive plan, say city officials. But it is apparent that neither the message nor evidence of any action is getting through to the small-business community.

The comprehensive plan, said one small-business owner, is "everything you want, but it's a joke. This small-business and minority-business thing is a joke. The mayor needs to lead and not let the developers dictate how the city will be developed. I just feel that someone needs to sit down and talk with the mayor."

Perhaps.

In any event, it's obvious that somehow, something has been lost in the translation of written policy into assurances for one segment of the business community.