A recent column about developer Douglas Jemal's plan to redevelop the former Woodward & Lothrop department store building drew an immediate and urgent response in the form of a letter from Charles A. Docter, chairman of the Downtown Housing Committee.

Docter dispatched three copies of the same letter, in fact -- two by mail and one by fax -- in which he took issue with a reference in the column to housing proponents' insistence that the building be zoned for residential use.

Docter notes that current zoning regulations already provide that "the entirety of the gross floor area [of the Woodies building] may be converted, as a matter of right, to any combination of preferred retail, service and arts-related uses . . . and to residential uses as defined. . . ."

The reference to residential uses, Docter continued, was added by the zoning commission after the D.C. Council inserted a similar provision in the 1998 Comprehensive Plan. The residential requirements, he added, "were inserted at the combined requests of the Opera Society, the Downtown Cluster of Congregations and our organization" after the Opera Society decided to sell the building and not house the opera there as planned.

Score one for those who succeeded in persuading the council and zoning commission to insert language in support of housing in the Woodies building.

The relevant sections of the regulation cited by Docter are nonetheless sufficiently ambiguous as to invite challenge by Jemal or some other developer who might acquire the property.

Note the phrases "may be converted" and "preferred uses," for example. The regulation may have been adopted by the zoning commission but the language is rather vague, indicating only that the council and zoning commission would like to see the building converted to retail, residential or arts-related uses.

Nothing in the regulation stipulates that the building shall be used for housing.

The language that was inserted in the comprehensive plan is equally ambivalent. It merely states that the former Woodies building "may be converted and reconstructed for retail, service, arts and entertainment uses and for residential uses."

Jemal, of course, wants a zoning amendment that would permit him to limit uses in the building to retail and office, saying the costs of converting to residential would be prohibitive.

Docter, on the other hand, contends it's possible to plug in housing, even if it means cutting a huge hole or atrium through the core of the eight-story structure. "You're going to have to put housing in there in order to get full use of the space," he declared last week.

That all depends, of course, on how big a retail tenant or tenants Jemal is able to attract and how big a demand there is for office space. Presumably, the storied department store building, sitting above a Metro station at the hub of the rapid transit system, and in the heart of downtown, would attract considerable interest, regardless of what it's used for.

But the stumbling block here is not so much what Jemal wants to do or what proponents of more downtown housing want. It is, instead, the familiar ad hoc, patchwork zoning and development approach that has made such a muddle of downtown revitalization.

There is no compelling legal, land-use or planning principle that says the Woodies building should be residential. It never was.

The issue that no one seems willing to address in the Woodies wrangle is that the entire downtown area, just north of Pennsylvania Avenue and south of Massachusetts Avenue NW, between Seventh and 14th streets NW, should be rezoned.

As it is, the Woodies building is being singled out in order to achieve a limited goal, supported by a dubious policy. A new mixed-use building is being constructed across the street from the former Woodies store. The developer is under no obligation to include housing. Neither is another developer whose project is going up a block west of the Woodies building. No building owner, in fact, is being forced to include housing within four square blocks of the Woodies building.

What we have in effect is a gross inequity in the downtown zoning regulations.

Meanwhile, Andrew Altman, the District's new planning director, has appointed a task force to study the issues involved. Altman has also requested a postponement of a zoning hearing that was scheduled to consider matters related to the reuse of the Woodies building. The purpose, he explained in a letter to the commission, is to give his office, Jemal and others an opportunity to "understand the constraints and opportunities" associated with the matter.

That's a reasonable approach, though it's only a half step toward resolving the immediate problem.

It's time, meanwhile, for District officials to start thinking outside the box and rezone downtown in a way that will bring about a more desirable mix of housing, offices and retail uses.