The D.C. Council convened a public hearing this week on the nomination of Andrew Altman, a former director of planning in Oakland, Calif., as director of the District's Office of Planning.

But it's fair to say that confirming Altman is only the first step in an initiative by the council chairman, Linda W. Cropp (D), to strengthen the operation of the planning office.

Improving the District's land-use planning and zoning functions is a major goal for the council this year, Cropp noted in letters to civic and business leaders, among others, last month.

The council wants to "ensure that [those functions] are appropriately coordinated, both with each other and with efforts to preserve, stabilize and revitalize neighborhoods throughout the city," Cropp added.

As a follow-up, Cropp plans to convene a series of forums in which participants will be invited to engage in an exchange of ideas on how to improve zoning and land-use planning in the District.

This initiative by Cropp could not have come at a better time, given the momentum that's building in support of various development plans, proposals and economic development strategies that have been presented to District officials during the past year or so. Clearly the District needs to address deficiencies in its zoning and planning offices before officials can respond effectively to advocates of those proposals.

The timing of Cropp's initiative also coincides with key changes occurring in the city's economic-development cluster.

Not only is the planning office getting its first director after more than two years, but Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) is soon expected to name a new deputy mayor for economic development, which includes planning.

Douglas Patton, who was appointed interim deputy mayor for economic development in February, has announced his intention to return to the private sector in October.

New appointments notwithstanding, economic development and planning in the District remain disjointed. Development downtown is more often than not done on an ad hoc basis, often with developers and their hired guns dictating land-use policy to fit their designs.

"The lack of any publicly accountable process in government has been frustrating for developers, local citizens and the United States Congress for several years," Dorn C. McGrath Jr., an authority on urban and regional planning and a member of the faculty at George Washington University, told Cropp earlier this month.

Planning and zoning, like other aspects of economic development in the District, have been largely dysfunctional for many years. The planning office, for example, has been severely handicapped by deep budget and staff cuts. Moreover, the office has had two directors and two acting directors in the past three years.

"The planning office has been decimated," said Cropp. "It really wasn't functioning, not looking into the future, not saying, 'What if . . .?' "

Having already taken the lead in increasing the budget and staffing in the planning office by 41 percent for fiscal 2000, and approving a 33 percent increase in the zoning office's budget, Cropp plans to recommend additional improvements in the operation of both offices.

Cropp's leadership in calling attention to those deficiencies is a refreshing example of leadership rarely seen on the council in these matters. Taking the lead on this issue is nevertheless a direct response to dozens of complaints from citizens and members of the business community.

Cropp said the complaints cover a wide range of subjects, from land-use planning to the public-policy declarations in the District's Comprehensive Plan.

"I want to hear from the experts what's wrong and why we're hearing so many complaints," Cropp said, referring to her plan to convene a series of forums to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the zoning and planning offices.

In an an informal session earlier this month, participants representing a cross section of the community were invited to express their views.

The importance of Cropp's initiative is further magnified by reports that Williams will soon announce an economic development initiative to spur revitalization in several areas of the District, including underserved communities east of the Anacostia River.

Aides say areas targeted for revitalization include Poplar Point on the east bank of the Anacostia, between the Frederick Douglass Bridge and the Navy Yard; commercial strips on Georgia Avenue NW and H Street NE; the New York Avenue NE corridor; and M Street SE, near the Navy Yard.

Clearly the scope of the strategy outlined by aides to the mayor has major land-use planning and zoning implications.

Thus the challenge for Williams in executing his redevelopment strategy lies in answering a fundamental question Cropp raised recently: How can the city best improve land-use, planning and zoning functions "so that citizens and other stakeholders are more satisfied with the process by which the government makes [those] decisions?" To say that Cropp's initiative on land use, planning and zoning comes in the nick of time would be an understatement.