The citizens and their city council willing, Alexandria could have one of the most exciting waterfronts in the country.

Imagine Newport's harbor and Boston's Quincy Market combined: big cruise ships, river boats, sailboats, water taxis, a ferry to Georgetown and to the Lincoln Memorial; regattas; fishermen selling fresh fish and farmers selling fresh produce; artist studios and art exhibits; a waterside restaurant; the old Boat Club rebuilt to look like an Old Boat Club; a whimsical pavilion; color; cool drinks in the river breeze; that sweeping view of the nation's capital.

And it would cost the city almost nothing.

On the contrary, a new waterfront, with all the goodies architects William H. Metcalf, Arthur Keyes and their firms designed into it, would attract boat enthusiasts, tourists and shoppers from all over and bring new business and tax revenues. It would also reduce the heavy bulk of the Torpedo Plant, transform the rest of it, and reunite the city with its river.

The Torpedo Plant consists of four massive factories. The first was built in 1918 at a time when most urban waterfronts, including those of Alexandria and Georgetown, were dense and sooty with industry. When, after World War II, torpedoes were no longer needed, the military stored captured documents in the factories. In 1970, the city of Alexandria bought them. The city fathers are still somewhat at odds as to what to do with them.

Some people want to tear down the entire complex and turn the plant into an immense front lawn for the Carlyle House three blocks uphill. Built in 1752, the house was recently overrestored to look somewhat like a suburban Nieman-Marcus store. The lawn would return the city to plantation days.

A number of architects have over the years proposed various schemes for "recycling" the factories into a tourist and shopping center. The city council would shake its collective head in disbelief, but finally consented to let artists use one of the buildings for studios and exhibits. The Torpedo Factory Art Center is a great success. It helped to make the old town a lucrative tourist attraction.

That, in turn, encouraged city hall to invite developers and their architects to submit proposals for rebuilding the entire complex. The rules are that the developer must buy part of the property, make lease arrangements for other parts, reduce the bulk of the factories and let the 130 artists stay.

For the rest, the conditions of the contest seem somewhat vague and half-hearted. There are no firm rules and criteria as to who is judging what, particularly as regards the financial arrangement. The city is just fishing for good ideas and feels under no obligation to do anything. Whatever is done in the end must be approved by six of the seven city council members.

There are now three finalists.

The weakest of them, in my view, is a team consisting of Watergate Developers and OTV Inc., with architects Smith and Williams of Pasadena, Calif. This proposal would leave the industrial complex pretty much as it is, surround it with greenery and fill it with apartments, stores and offices. On the river's edge in front of the factories, Watergate/OTV would place some odd looking, square islands to be occupied by a restaurant, the rowing club and such.

The team explains that the existing industrial architecture has a beauty all its own, which is not altogether wrong, and that to do any more would attract too many people and make the place as crowded as Georgetown's Wisconsin Avenue on Saturday night.

The apparent front runner in the eyes of the City Council is the Redstone Development Corporation with William F. Vosbeck and his firm VVKR as architects. VVKR seem to be city hall's favorite architects.

This scheme strikes me as bland and unattractive. Along the waterfront would be a solid wall of buildings, relieved only by a paste-on facade which looks bizarre and post-post-modern with its irregular fenestration. It has no relation to either Alexandria's townhouses or the old art deco Plant. The waterfront features nothing more than a straight and narrow promenade until it just out into a big dock adorned by a silly hyperbolic paraboloid band shell that looks left over from the 1964 New York World's Fair.

To the rear of the solid wall, facing

Carlyle House, in place of the huge factory known as Building No. 2, Redstone would give us a park lined with tall condominium apartment houses which look almost as forbidding as the abandoned factory.

The scheme appears favored by the city council despite its design because the city planning staff asserts that it would earn the city more money than the other proposals.

The third team disputes this. It consists of a developers' joint venture headed by Charles R. Hooff III, and the aforementioned architects Metcalf and Keyes. It calls itself the Alexandria Waterfront Restoration Group.

In its written analysis of the various proposals, the planning staff stated that the Hooff proposal was clearly "the best architectural design, but that this strength in design is out-weighed by the superiority of the Redstone proposal in other important elements."

The other important elements are mostly financial and, says the Restoration Group, "based on misinformation and distortion of facts."

Arthur Keyes says his scheme would pay more revenues because it offers more profitable attractions than the others.

The financial question needs a fair examination in which the same yard-sticks are applied to all contestants. There can be no doubt about the attractiveness of the Hooff team's attractions.

It has brilliantly solved the important design problems:

The waterfront with its festive pavilion, the traditional boathouse and the lively arrangement of piers and bollards against a varied architectural background is as charming and intimate as any port this side of Portofino.

The mix of activities within the building complex is sure to generate bustle and excitement.

The arcade leading through the present Art Center, from King Street to the waterfront plaza, is a most happy idea. So is the reduction of the bulky and bothersome Building No. 2 to a three-level parking garage topped by a square lined with townhouses. It is the only design which would give poor Carlyle House a view of the water.

Most important, Hooff's architects have managed to carve away enough of the Torpedo Plant to bring it into scale with its surroundings without multilating the gutsy old factories. That is quite an achievement.

It is an a design achievement that the citizens of Alexandria cannot help but recognize.

The present City Council has referred the whole contest to the Planning Committee and is unlikely to make a decision before the election in June. This gives people of Alexandria time to view the models in the lobby of City Hall and let the new Council know which one should be built.