A D.C. official made a striking observation on the city's growth prospects as plans were announced for major commercial developments in Washington's suburbs.

"Until the suburbs stop growing there is no way that the District will catch up," the official said. "The District would like to grow but it never will grow at a rate as fast as in the suburbs."

That's likely to be the case, he suggested, regardless of the commercial development boom in the city's central business district.

Two recent examples dramatically illustrate that point. Early last month, the Montgomery County Council approved a development plan that will create more than 11,000 jobs in downtown Silver Spring.

And less than two weeks ago, state and local officials celebrated a symbolic ground breaking for the widely heralded PortAmerica project in Prince George's County. An estimated 10,000 jobs will be created at PortAmerica.

The disparity in job growth is a familiar story. The private sector continues to create huge job centers in the suburbs while the federal government reduces its traditional role as the District's largest employer.

Job creation in the District has been declining for 20 years, while growth in the suburbs has mushroomed. Although annual suburban growth rates have declined from a spectacular 8.5 percent in 1985 to about 3.5 percent, they continue to be much higher than in the District. The District is adding jobs at a rate of 0.8 percent.

Researchers in the D.C. Department of Employment Services (DCDES) recently documented the pattern in a review of job-growth rates in the District between 1945 and 1985.

The District's economy has added 144,000 jobs since the end of World War II, an annual rate of 0.7 percent, according to DCDES.

The most prolific period of job growth was between 1960 and 1965, primarily during the New Frontier era, when federal employment surged. The 70,900 jobs that were added during that five-year span, at an annual rate of 2.8 percent, represent almost half the increase for the 40-year period.

"Without the New Frontier expansion, the long-term job-growth rate would be only 0.4 percent a year," DCDES officials concluded in a recent labor market summary.

The second most productive period of job growth in the District was between 1975 and 1980, when the rate averaged 1.3 percent a year.

The 1982 recession and federal job reductions imposed by the Reagan administration combined to squeeze the average growth rate in the District to a mere 0.5 percent in the next five years.

Still, an annual job-growth rate in excess of 0.7 percent in the District would constitute "better-than-expected" expansion, according to DCDES.

Realistically, it cautions, one shouldn't anticipate growth rates in the District to be as high as those in the suburbs.

"The District is a mature economy with scarce and expensive land, a stable population, a declining major industry {the federal government} and a height restriction on its buildings."

Despite those apparent drawbacks to large-scale job growth, DCDES notes, almost a third of all jobs in the region are in the District and, if the rate of expansion continues at the historic level of 0.7 percent, the city should gain about 55,000 jobs by the year 2000.

The numbers just don't support that kind of optimism, however. Except for the 1975-1980 period, the average since 1965 has floundered below 0.7 percent.

And despite growth in the District's private sector, there is little indication that the gap with the suburbs will close significantly in this century.

For that to happen, District officials will have to address two critical issues that the DCDES identified in explaining why growth rates aren't likely to be as high as those in the suburbs: scarce and expensive land and building-height limits.

Indeed, some D.C. officials and business leaders agree that the height restriction on buildings hurts growth in the District. They realize, however, that to suggest an increase in the limit would border on heresy.

Granted, there is just cause for opposing any proposal that would conflict with federal interests or the character of Washington's skyline.

But increasing the height ceiling for commercial buildings in certain areas of the city deserves serious consideration as a means of stimulating the local economy. Not only is land in downtown Washington scarce and expensive, but that area will soon be built out.

Skyscrapers are obviously out of the question. But allowing buildings 18 to 20 stories tall to be built on Georgia Avenue or in the old industrial northeast corridor, for example, wouldn't materially change the city's skyline.

If changing the height limit is out of the question, then the District should give serious consideration to increasing the building density allowed under current height limits.