"Chinatown will undergo some change in massing and appearance." -- Recommendations for the Downtown Plan Mayor's Downtown Committee

TO SAY that Chinatown will undergo some change in the coming years is a bit like characterizing the German blitzkrieg in France as a useful tactical exercise or, closer to home, describing the transformation of run-down Rosslyn since the 1960s as a slight alteration of the cityscape.

No question, Chinatown is under tremendous development pressure. No doubt, the Chinatown we will see in four or five or more years will be a changed place. The questions are, what kind of change, and how much is too much? Will what comes meet the needs of the present residents? Will it have much of a residential population in the future, and if so, how will the expanded need for homes and services be met? Will its fine groups of older commercial and residential buildings be demolished? Will it be an attractive place with an interesting variety of urban textures and uses? Or will it be a sort of K Street East with an ethnic veneer?

Like just about everything else involving the future of the old downtown, the Chinatown puzzle remains undone, and whether the pieces can be put together to good effect remains to be seen. The downtown plan submitted by the Mayor's Downtown Committee is now being reviewed and refined. The committee recommendations for Chinatown, like much else in its report, are long on conflicting goals and short on hard answers. Between the two, there is ample cause for alarm.

The first basic and seemingly intractable cause is simple: The zoning map for the eight-block area permits much higher densities than, for the most part, currently exist. Zoning in such raw form is at best an awkward and at worst a disastrous tool to regulate physical and social change, but since it is the basis upon which land has been bought and sold in the neighborhood for years, whether for the purpose of speculation or for actual construction, it is by no means an abstract issue.

Compounding the zoning problem is the apparent willingness of at least a majority of the mayor's committee to buy the argument that private office construction is the engine that drives the whole machine of downtown redevelopment. There is truth in the argument, of course. The current glut of new office space in the region notwithstanding, office buildings offer developers more profit at less risk than other large-scale projects, and offering the opportunity to build offices can be used as a lure to accomplish other goals.

But the committee's stated "land use targets" for Chinatown offer a chilling view of the future: 1,739,000 square feet of office space foreseen in the eight-block area, representing more than four times the office use already there. In view of this prediction, it is reasonable to ponder what in the world will be left of Chinatown underneath all of that business-day bulk.

This is not to say that bulk is necessarily bad, or offices unnecessary, or answers easy. It is simply to expose as directly as possible the potential hazards of using language loosely, as the committee does when it says, "The objective is to maintain a mix of uses, primarily Chinese in nature, and to preserve and enhance the Chinese character of the area." If offices filling the full zoning envelope are to be by far the predominant land use in the area--even with mandated ground-floor Asian retail uses and some high-density residential add-ons--it will be necessary to find another name for the place, for "Chinatown," by any legitimate understanding of the word, it will not be.

The architectural challenge of designing new buildings of this scale and use to somehow fit the neighborhood is almost insurmountable. To be sure, the mayor's committee recommended the establishment of suitable design standards to be administered by a downtown design review agency, but the report skirts the issue of control over the massing of new buildings -- the most important design issue.

Consider the case of the Potomac Buildings, erected in 1970 and, ironically, occupied by agencies of the District government. It's no exaggeration to say that with their shoddy International Style facades these speculative office buildings, one of which intrudes upon the 600 block of H Street NW (Chinatown's main street), are the meanest, ugliest structures of this type put up in Washington since World War II, an insult to the street and to modern architecture in general. No doubt almost any architect, working in any style and under any guidelines whatsoever, would do a better job, but is that enough? In their unrelenting mass the Potomac Buildings may represent the wave of the future for Chinatown.

Another example, more ambiguous, is the Wah Luck House, a residential high-rise completed this fall on the northwest corner of 6th and H streets NW. Socially the Wah Luck House has a lot going for it: 95 percent of its 153 subsidized living units are occupied by Asians, some of whom were displaced by demolition to make way for the Convention Center several blocks away. It's practically a miracle that it got built at all in this day of government retrenchment, and its construction from precast concrete modules is a model of ingenious economy.

The Wah Luck House, designed by Alfred H. Liu, is not without its architectural charms, either, with its pleasant interior garden, its red-paneled balconies and the upsweeping, pagoda-like roof line--Modernism in Chinese dress. Still, it turns its back on H Street (through no fault of the architect's, for the site was incredibly tight), and, again, its full-envelope size is out of kilter with the existing fabric.

And though Liu's use of color, derived perhaps as much from the vivid Chinese-American restaurant vernacular style as from traditional Chinese precedents, provides a helpful clue for other designers in the new Chinatown, one building in the basically ersatz Wah Luck style is perhaps enough. It scares me to think of what Chinatown will look like if the advice of the mayor's committee--"to obtain a basic Chinese character in the design of buildings in the area"--is taken literally.

If the city's zoning maps did not dictate change in Chinatown, the Convention Center would have. Just a block west of 8th Street, Chinatown's western border, it is in many ways an incongruous and threatening presence. But and in many ways it also represents genuine opportunities for Chinatown.

The restaurants and stores along H Street have been doing business as usual for years and the relaxed funkiness of the place is part of its appeal. But the row also has the unavoidable look of a hardy hanger-on in the wars of the speculators. Business generated by the Convention Center may be just what is needed to stimulate commercial activity throughout Chinatown, and especially on its main street.

Of course the whole affair--the interchange between large-scale, intensively used objects such as the Convention Center and its surrounding hotels and the more vivid, intimate Chinatown neighborhood -- must be sensitively and ingeniously managed. Although design review, coordinated management of ground-floor commercial uses, and public investment in signature street improvements (including a "gateway" park at Massachusetts Avenue and Sixth Street and some sort of Oriental gateway at 7th and H), are excellent ideas, they don't go far enough. Some additional controls over density and massing are desperately needed if architects and social planners are to be given even half a chance to create something really worthwhile.

Historic preservation is one answer, and the only one seriously proposed that deals with the fundamental issue of scale. Why the District government doesn't embrace the preservation district adopted last summer by the Joint Committee on Landmarks as a heaven-sent opportunity to shape the downtown area is a real mystery. The historic district, which to take effect simply needs to be nominated to the National Register of Historic Places by Robert Moore, the city's historic preservation officer, remains in limbo, with consequences that could be especially damaging to Chinatown.

To be sure, there is nothing even remotely Chinese, except for a sign here and there, about the buildings. But the old churches, commercial buildings and row houses in the neighborhood do represent a remarkably cohesive sequence of architectural styles. More to the point, they represent precisely what the new Chinatown needs: a variety of age, texture, silhouette and scale. To demolish the wonderful, almost sculptured row of buildings on either side of the 700 block of H Street, for instance, would be to lose a valued slice of the city's history, and to abandon a rare opportunity to design and modulate the growth of a new Chinatown. It would be much too new without them.