A plan to turn over the Southeast Federal Center to a private developer who would build offices, shops and restaurants on the 55-acre government-owned site is a capital idea.

But the plan, which came to light last week, should in no way cause the General Services Administration to abandon plans to acquire office space at the Southeast Federal Center (SFC) for federal agencies that need to expand.

Regardless of the mix of uses that a developer might include in plans for the center, government ownership of the site, its size and location on M Street SE, near a Metro stop, make it ideally suited for federal offices. Besides, the Navy Yard, which already has a work force of 20,000 or more, is expanding on property next to the SFC.

While the Department of Transportation is reportedly considering the SFC for its new headquarters, agencies generally have balked at the idea of moving there, despite its proximity to the Navy Yard complex, which is within walking distance of the Capitol.

A private development on the waterfront site would no doubt have a substantial impact on the District's economy. Presumably the mix of offices, shops and restaurants would act as a catalyst for further redevelopment in the South Capitol Street-M Street SE corridor. That's assuming, of course, that prospective tenants from the private sector would be more enthusiastic than federal agencies about leasing space in that area.

A bill that D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton plans to introduce would authorize GSA to enter into an agreement to bring "appropriate" development to the site, whatever that means.

Even more intriguing is a suggestion by GSA officials last week that a developer would not necessarily be required to build federal offices as part of the project.

That's tantamount to an acknowledgment that the tail really wags the dog when it comes to acquiring space for federal agencies. The GSA may be the federal government's landlord, but when it comes to leasing space in the District, the record clearly shows some agency heads would just as soon be in Antarctica.

The GSA has maintained control over the SFC since 1963, when the Navy relinquished the property. Thirty years later, GSA entered into an agreement with a development team that included Washington's JBG Cos., preparing the site for development of as much as 6 million square feet of office space for federal agencies.

Still, several agencies have refused to consider moving to the SFC or, for that matter, other locations in the District.

Northern Virginia congressmen further damaged efforts to make the SFC a federal office center three years ago in an unseemly parochial power play designed to have the headquarters of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms move from the District to Northern Virginia. Their assertions that crime near the SFC was a serious problem were hardly helpful to GSA in its attempts to redevelop the site as a federal office campus.

But in some other instances, GSA was apparently persuaded that it would be best if certain agencies moved to the suburbs. The IRS, for example, set up shop for about 4,000 employees in New Carrollton, and GSA has signed off on a deal to move the Patent and Trademark Office from Crystal City to Alexandria rather than have the patent office return to the District.

The Carlyle site in Alexandria was the "highest-rated" location for the patent office's new offices and it "offered the lowest price," according to Anthony E. Costa, assistant regional administrator of GSA's Public Buildings Service. GSA selected the "best and most economical plan" in that instance, Costa noted.

Even so, the plan will cost taxpayers $1.2 billion over 20 years if a pending lawsuit to block the move fails.

There are other factors to be considered, however, not the least of which are executive orders by presidents Carter and Clinton establishing the priority for locating federal facilities and leasing office space: help strengthen the economies of U.S. cities.

And yet, the District continues to be the loser in the kind of gamesmanship and poaching that led to a plan by GSA and the Food and Drug Administration two years ago to develop a campus-style complex for 7,000 employees at White Oak.

Redevelopment of the Southeast Federal Center and the Washington Navy Yard may well reinforce the surge of economic activity the National Capital Planning Commission envisions for the South Capitol Street corridor.

But even if federal agencies choose not to be part of that economic resurgence, GSA and agency heads should not be let off the hook in meeting their obligations to carry out executive orders on federal facilities.