Sharp differences of opinion over how much housing should be built in downtown Washington obscure the fact that plans to improve retailing -- a better use for land than housing in the central business district -- are in disarray.

The death of the Garfinckel's chain dramatically underscored that fact. Losing Garfinckel's flagship store in the retail core is a severe setback for District officials who were hoping to land another major retailer in the central business district even as Garfinckel's abruptly threw in the towel.

Now, however, the city's attempts to attract a major department store are being questioned by some who seriously doubt the need for another large department or specialty retail outlet downtown -- even a replacement for Garfinckel's.

That in itself is an unsettling if not a damaging blow to the city's plans for the central business district. The controversy over downtown housing merely brings into sharper focus what has become a Tower-of-Babel planning dilemma. The views of planners, developers, retailers and zoning commission members have yet to converge in a way that will help implement the downtown element of the city's comprehensive plan.

At a time when commercial real estate developers and the D.C. Office of Planning seem less sharply divided on proposed retail uses in the central business district, some retailers ironically aren't buying into the city's grand design for downtown. "Woodies and Hecht's can handle the department store needs downtown for a while," a prominent retail executive said recently in opposing the District government's vision for a revitalized shopping district.

Adding a 100,000-square-foot department store downtown would be a mistake, the executive implied. "A 100,000-square-foot store? Do you know what that is? That's another 50 to 60 {smaller} stores. You don't see a Limited downtown. You don't see a Gap downtown. Those are the stores you see in the middle of the malls. Those are the stores you need downtown."

The notion that two department stores are sufficient for the District's retail core is provocative, to say the least, and it may well be a minority view. On the other hand, there seems to be general agreement that popular retail outlets typically found in suburban shopping malls are needed downtown. One official closely involved in the downtown redevelopment effort insisted, "We need a range of retail that's not in the malls, {but} there probably is more a demand for more middle-of-the-market retail." Nonetheless, the same official said he believes "there probably is a department store that's right for downtown. One of the beauties of a department store is that it appeals to a wide range of tastes."

The same can be said of the proper mix of specialty retail stores that have contributed to the success of so many suburban malls. The problem is that District officials have yet to show they understand the dynamics of retailing. To complicate matters, commercial developers in downtown Washington either don't understand or haven't learned to appreciate the symbiotic relationship between office buildings and retail stores.

Consider this statistic: During the 1980s, Washington's downtown lost more than 3 million square feet of retail, much of which was apparently pushed out by office development, according to Terry Jill Lassar, research counsel at the Urban Land Institute and author of "Carrots & Sticks: New Zoning Downtown."

Not only has retail been pushed out, but efforts to bring it back or replace it also have been woefully inadequate.

Yet we learn from the National Council for Urban Economic Development that the increase in office development in recent years has created a new market nationally for downtown retailers. "While many suburban office parks have seen the value of having retail activities nearby, many businesses can see the advantages of a downtown location," the council noted in one of its publications last year. "Downtowns have the advantages of access to information, proximity to financial institutions and government offices, as well as a prestige that many firms covet. These advantages increase with the addition of a good mix of retail, cultural and other activities that are rarely available in any particular suburban location."

Somehow the logic of that has escaped office developers in downtown Washington, whose notion of retail space typically has been more bank branches, copy centers and photo supply stores than demand dictates. Certainly business services are vital to office building tenants, but consumer retail services are major attractions for employers and employees in those buildings.

Almost every study on the subject makes the point that a heavy concentration of office workers in downtown areas provides a ready-made retail market. This "captive" consumer group gives the downtown a stronger market than what shopping malls usually can expect during office hours. Downtown retail stores that remain open during and immediately after the evening rush hours also have the potential of drawing substantial numbers of customers.

Having won a reprieve this week when the D.C. Zoning Commission postponed a decision on how much residential development there should be downtown, developers in the District now have an opportunity to demonstrate that their reasons for investing in the city aren't all selfish. Many of them contend that commercial development is vital to the District's economy. Housing would have to be built at a loss in the central business district, they explain, because land there costs so much. The District will lose a major source of its tax revenue if developers are forced to build housing instead of commercial space downtown, say industry spokesmen.

Their argument has merit. But as long as developers continue to maintain that downtown is better suited for commercial development, they can ill-afford to be hypocrites on the subject. Not only is retail a legitimate use, it adds rather than detracts from the commercial base, and it's time for the development industry to support it more aggressively.

With the zoning commission at a temporary impasse on the housing question, now may be the perfect time for commercial developers and city planners to step back and rethink their plans for downtown.

A reasoned approach to planning and development, supported jointly by the public and private sectors, should mute many of the concerns about the direction redevelopment is taking in the central business district. And having virtually agreed on how much housing can be accommodated in the area, city planners and developers should find it less difficult now to agree on what amenities -- landscaping, retail stores, theaters, restaurants, art galleries, historic preservation and, indeed, housing -- will add vitality to the workaday atmosphere of office complexes.

Indeed, a better understanding by both sides of development goals and constraints should go a long way in resolving major differences before they ever reach the zoning commission.