Acrid smoke trailed from the rubble and burned-out hulks where stores and houses had stood, and a haze still hung in the spring air over much of the center city of Northwest Washington this time 17 years ago.

Calm had returned to the city after the flames of April had been extinguished along with the civil disorders of 1968. But the scars would remain for years. Rebuilding the burned-out corridors of the inner city would take decades.

Several blocks away, rebuilding, fostered by an entirely different set of circumstances, was changing the cityscape in the late 1960s as commercial real estate developers pushed the boundaries of downtown further west.

Both developments eventually would have significant impact on economic development and the pattern of residential and commercial growth in the District.

Redevelopment west of 15th Street NW set the pace for a construction boom in downtown Washington that began in the late 1960s. Private developers and institutional investors have made downtown Washington one of the hottest real estate markets in the country.

On a smaller though significant scale, however, development of the District's commercial center and the rebuilding of the old burned-out corridors have been shaped by nonprofit entrepreneurs, primarily churches and institutions of higher education. Driven by different motives, these groups have contributed substantially, nevertheless, to the economic growth of the District.

George Washington University's role as a real estate developer is a prime example. Frequently referred to pejoratively as "Real Estate U," the university has become a developer and owner of commercial real estate properties over the past 17 years. Although not considered a major competitor of for-profit commercial real estate developers, the university, nonetheless, has assumed a prominent role in the development of prime office space bordering its campus in Foggy Bottom.

Although sensitive to criticism of its acquisition and development of property for nonacademic purposes, GWU continues to add to its land bank. Unlike other major developers who are driven by the profit motive, the university, according to officials, is guided by a desire to maintain the integrity of its urban campus.

In the early 1950s, "it became apparent to university officials that people had started to build west of 16th Street and that they would move west to Rock Creek Park and wash away property in their path," said Charles E. Diehl, GWU's vice president and treasurer.

GWU's move to its present location in 1912 was the third since its founding in 1881. The university's board, in a farsighted decision, concluded that for the university to continue as an urban institution, it would have to acquire land bordering the campus. The university continued to expand from roughly one square block (bounded by 20th, 21st, G and H streets NW) until 1965, when it was forced by a Board of Zoning Adjustment regulation to develop a campus plan.

University officials considered, but rejected, a notion that they sell valuable holdings in the District and move to Virginia. "We developed as an urban institution and were committed to that," Diehl said. "Once we made that commitment, the question was, how do you acquire enough land to assure a viable downtown site?

"The university decided that it would have to take control of property along Pennsylvania Avenue because developers would acquire it and just wipe out the campus," he said.

With that in mind, the university developed a campus plan that calls for all property along Pennsylvania Avenue to be zoned commercial, and property along the 19th Street side of the campus to be put in a land bank. Having settled on the plan, GWU, in 1968, developed the Joseph Henry building, which houses the National Academy of Sciences, at 21st Street and Pennsylvania Avenue. It was the first of several modern office buildings that GWU would build in keeping with its plan.

Five years later, it completed the Thomas Edison Building, headquarters of Potomac Electric Power Co., at 19th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue.

Since then, said Diehl, "We have developed on campus three more projects under the same rubric. That is -- get the land assembled so we can have it for future use. But once assembled, we get it off our back. Holding land doesn't do much for a university. It's not an earnings asset."

To turn one of its assets into earnings, GWU sold a parcel of land at 19th and F streets NW to the World Bank in 1980. Under that transaction, the university sold the parcel for cash, with the right to buy back the land as well as the World Bank annex built there at a specified time and predetermined price that the university will not disclose.

"It was a fair situation and, using the resources we got back from that, we were able to make an addition to the Henry Building and develop 2000 Pennsylvania," Diehl noted.

GWU's latest venture, at 2000 Pennsylvania Ave., combines a row of refurbished 19th-century town houses (Red Lion Row, named for a tavern that was in one of the original buildings) and an office tower containing more than 300,000 square feet. Bridged by a mini-mall, the $40 million complex contains 43,400 square feet of retail space.

The university "started off with 2,000 to 4,000 square feet, and now we have about 4 million square feet of land" in 19 blocks, Diehl noted.

This massive development program, he added, has enabled the university to achieve many of its academic goals. "One building builds another. Since 1968, we have built 2.5 million square feet of academic space."

Much of the academic space was built with federal funds as well as the money that GWU has made as a developer. In addition to buying buildings, aggressive land acquisition and development has enabled GWU to provide resources for its on-campus constituency and to play a significant role in the economic growth of the District.

The university paid $2.8 million in real estate taxes last year on five commercial buildings with net rentable space of 1.7 million square feet.

"We were able to get land off the back of the university and put it in use and create a resource for the city in taxes," Diehl said.

Equally important, he added, the transactions "don't penalize the university's constituency. We don't have to ask students coming here to pay for that land."

Neither does the university want to be compared with Robin Hood, he added, by charging affluent patients in its hospital exorbitant fees to compensate for the inability of the poor to pay full medical expenses.

"We put out pretty close to $10 million a year in uncompensated medical expenses, and only through our real estate assets can we afford to do that," Diehl said.

Although its role in a major downtown office project is not as extensive as that of George Washington University, one of the District's oldest and most prominent black churches is a limited partner with a major developer. In a joint venture headed by Boston Properties, Metropolitan AME Church will own 5 percent of 1615 M St. NW when the project is completed.

Described by Boston Properties Senior Vice President Robert E. Burke as "a real model of public- and private-sector partnership," the 1615 M St. project will link the historic Sumner School and nearby Magruder School to a new nine-story office building. Developers of the $30 million project, which is being built on District-owned land, agreed to restore the Sumner School building as a museum and archival center for the school system.

Burke said Boston Properties included Metropolitan in the partnership because of the church's long association with Sumner, the city's first black public school. According to Burke, Metropolitan occupied the Sumner site before selling the property and moving across the street and one block east on M Street. "There was this natural historic link, and we wanted to recognize that," Burke said.

As part of the arrangement with Metropolitan, Boston Properties is retiring a long-term debt incurred by the church.

In sharp contrast to Metropolitan AME's limited partnership, a number of other churches have taken a more active role in real estate development. The National City Christian Church, for example, has begun construction of a five-story office building, adjacent to the church at Thomas Circle.

In addition to church offices, the new building will house offices of other church organizations, both ecumenical and denominational. The new addition wasn't planned to compete in the office market but will provide an alternative for prospective tenants who might find other office space impractical.

"We will put the building at the disposal of other groups," making it available to "the community and pluralistic groups," said William C. Howland, senior minister and vice president for administration.

While several nonprofit groups have become more involved in the development of commercial and retail space in recent years, it is the leadership by many of the churches in the inner city that has spurred a revitalization of the District's riot-torn areas.

"I think the churches here in Washington, especially here in the Shaw area, have played a major role in filling in some of the burned-out areas," said the Rev. Ernest R. Gibson, executive director of the Washington Council of Churches. "It has almost brought us a new community. In my travels to other cities, I haven't seen nonprofit housing profit as much as in the Shaw area."

Churches and affiliated nonprofit organizations have built more than 750 residential units on former D.C. Redevelopment Land Agency (urban renewal) parcels alone.

For example, in the early 1970s, the Immaculate Conception Church was involved in building a 10-story apartment complex at 7th and N streets NW.

"We've always seen the churches as extensions of ourselves," observed an official in the D.C. Department of Housing.

Church-sponsored housing dominates a six-block stretch along 7th St. NW, in the heart of the Shaw community, which was declared an urban renewal area in the late '60s. Churches and nonprofit organizations that operate subsidized housing pay no property taxes on the land.

Gibson, who is also the pastor at First Rising Mount Zion Baptist Church, said his congregation postponed plans to construct a new church and formed a housing corporation to develop Gibson Plaza, a high-rise apartment complex for low- and moderate-income families.

"The need was so very desperate, especially after the burnings in 1968," he said.

The same motivation prompted other churches in the area to pool their resources and federal housing funds and build hundreds of housing units in Shaw and other inner-city communities.

"It's purely altruism that led us into the field," said Bishop Smallwood Williams of the Bible Way Church. "Obviously, there was a need for livable, affordable housing. Even before I learned about HUD programs, we bought houses and rented them to people."

Bible Way built the Golden Rule high-rise apartments on New Jersey Avenue 10 years ago and added 85 town-house units and 40 garden apartments on adjacent property.

Citing the importance of federal programs in helping to build the housing projects, Williams, a longtime activist in civic and political affairs, declared: "That's why I hate to see them castrate HUD."

The bulk of the church-sponsored housing in the District was financed by HUD programs. Under the Housing and Urban Development Act, low- and moderate-income families pay up to 30 percent of their incomes for rent, and HUD pays the difference between that amount and the rental costs. Subsidy programs that were written into the 1968 act produced more than a half-million units nationwide.

In addition to housing, Bible Way built a supermarket in its Golden Rule apartment building, but when the church was unable to land a commitment from a supermarket chain to operate the store, HUD refused to guarantee a loan on that part of the property. So Williams organized a corporation to run the supermarket.

He said that after two years, "We managed to get out with a loss of only $200,000, but the store is doing well now" under new management.

Most observers agree that the churches' real estate development programs contributed greatly to a decision by Giant Food Inc. in 1979 to open its first new supermarket in more than 12 years in the District.

The addition of new housing, which added stability to the Shaw area, also "encouraged the O Street market," said Gibson. "We're talking about a whole new community that has been built, and that has some significance for downtown Washington."

One measure of its significance is the fact that sales volume at Giant's supermarket at 9th and O streets NW ranks it among the top 25 in the chain's 132 stores. Giant does not disclose exact sales figures for individual stores, but a spokesman described the supermarket in Shaw as "a real high-volume store."

"It was purely a matter of market, or whether there were enough people there to support a supermarket" after the disturbances of the '60s, Gibson said. "If the area had not been developed, Giant would not have returned."