Looming like an overstuffed shopping bag above Tysons Corner, the 17-story JTL Tycon Towers was a potent symbol of Northern Virginia's go-go economic growth in the 1980s. But in two weeks, the expensive red-orange office building and the land it sits on could be sold on Fairfax County's courthouse steps.

The building, designed by renowned architect Philip Johnson, houses the Tower Club, a members-only dinner club, as well as office tenants -- but, like many other buildings that sprung up during the region's boom, it is not full.

A Boston-based investment group is foreclosing on $165 million worth of loans, dating from 1988, that it made to two real estate partnerships controlled by James T. Lewis, who is also the developer of the stalled billion-dollar PortAmerica project in Prince George's County.

Lewis said yesterday, however, that he will attempt to avoid a foreclosure sale.

Officials of the investment group, Aldrich Eastman & Waltch, say JTL Tycon Towers I L.P. and Tycon Beltway L.P., which own the 490,000-square-foot building just off Route 7 and the dozen vacant acres adjacent to it, are in default. They plan to go ahead with the sale on March 28.

Aldrich Eastman has advertised the sale, said Robert Rausch, the lawyer representing the company, and will shop the building and property either as a package or individually. According to Fairfax County real estate tax assessments, the building and land are valued at close to $80 million.

Lewis was notified last week of the foreclosure plan and said he was "shocked" by it, calling the action "dramatic ... and entirely inappropriate." The Alexandria-based developer blamed the delayed loan payments on the region's economic downturn and its soft commercial office leasing market, which have left 20 percent of the building vacant.

"I was surprised, to say the least, because I had been talking with them and figuring out a {debt restructuring} to everyone's benefit," said Lewis yesterday. "And, by and large, it has been amicable. ... The foreclosure filing puts everything way out of perspective, something that we should have been able to work out over the phone. It was one of those unfortunate things."

Lewis said the foreclosure sale is not likely to go forward. "No, it will not," he said. "It is not an acceptable thing."

Real estate observers said one way Lewis could avoid the sale is to put the partnerships into bankruptcy court protection, which would delay the disposition of the building while he works out new financing.

"It's always possible, but we are trying to avoid it. ... I don't think it will come to that," said Lewis.

Talk of foreclosure and bankruptcy seems far removed from just three years ago, when the building was seen as a bold statement of the new financial clout of Northern Virginia real estate developers.

Pricey and architecturally outspoken, the building was capped by the penthouse-level Tower Club, a swank , by-invitation-only private club that developers, real estate titans and other suburban elite -- dubbed the "Who's Who of Fairfax County" -- rushed to join in mid-1989, despite the $2,500 initiation fee.

The Tower Club was Lewis's brainchild, though it is owned by the Dallas-based Club Development Interests. When the Tower Club opened, white-gloved waiters served seven different wines at the inaugural party. Its membership board even turned away applicants for its 1,500 openings.

Today, say sources, business at the club has been bumpy -- membership is now down to 1,100 -- because of the recession and its effect on developers. The Tower Club holds a 20-year lease, officials there said, and would not be affected by a change in ownership.

The real estate downturn also has affected plans for two other buildings, identical to Tycon Towers, that Lewis wanted on the adjoining land. Lewis said he would not build the towers until he has financing. "It's a sign of the times," said Lewis. "The economic downturn and difficulties are common knowledge to everyone."

Tycon Towers is not the only Lewis project that is suffering. He also has been attempting for years to get more than $200 million in financing from Japanese sources for his much-publicized PortAmerica riverfront project in Prince George's County.

Important parts of the $1.5 billion, 463-acre site on the Potomac River below the Woodrow Wilson Bridge were expected to be completed by now, despite such obstacles as federal government opposition to the height of some of its buildings.

For now, he has to deal with the problems at Tycon Towers, which Lewis was optimistic about solving, although Aldrich Eastman officials would not comment.

"I think we are very close to wrapping it up in a few days," said Lewis. "We are working very closely with the lender to settle the whole thing."