Like many of Washington's older, close-in suburban centers, downtown Bethesda is becoming an "almost city"--a dense urban enclave in the middle of a quiet, traditional, low-rise suburb.

What distinguishes Bethesda today is the speed of the transformation and the degree of public involvement in it. Bethesda's professional and appointed planners are engaged in a daring gamble that, by calling in almost all of the existing development chips at once, they can effectively shape the new center.

If the results are unsure, the prospects are exciting. There is no question that something has to be done. Growth is inevitable, especially with that city-scale subway getting ready to roll. Besides that, downtown Bethesda is a mess--lovable, perhaps, but a certifiable mess.

You can see this in the architecture, which when not thoroughly humdrum or outright ugly, veers crazily from one quaint excess to another, from Tudor to Colonial to contemporary. You can sense it in the odd Bermuda Triangle of streets between Wisconsin Avenue and Old Georgetown Road--the easiest small urban area to get lost in on the eastern seaboard. You can feel it trying to navigate the weekly Saturday traffic jam.

And to attempt a pleasant stroll in central Bethesda is to realize the precise meaning of Gertrude Stein's famous witticism, "There is no there there." She was of course referring to Oakland, Calif. In Bethesda even if it were there, there would be no way to get to it.

Still, after reviewing plans for 14 new medium- to high-density buildings in about as many blocks in the Bethesda central business district, it is possible to wonder in what ways the new Bethesda will be significantly better, and not just bigger, than the old one.

The situation is this: Four large new structures in the heart of town are committed or are already under construction. All of these buildings will be similar in design and will connect to a two-acre retail-restaurant-skating plaza at Bethesda Metro Center, west of the intersection of Wisconsin Avenue and Old Georgetown Road. This will be Bethesda's "there."

Ten additional structures have been proposed in an unprecedented development competition ratified last fall by the Montgomery County Council. Because of a ceiling on new development, not all of these buildings will be built. The competition is rapidly coming to a close. On June 22 the five appointed members of the Montgomery County Planning Board will meet to decide which of the projects may proceed to the next, more detailed phase of the competition.

It is the largest, most pressure-packed suburban redevelopment to take place in the Washington metropolitan area since Crystal City and Rosslyn, but the Bethesda process is unique in several ways.

Understandably, local citizens groups have been concerned about the added automobile traffic that new development would bring to the town's already crowded main thoroughfares, and about the impact of the big new buildings on nearby residential areas. County transportation and urban design planners have attempted to address these concerns in a variety of ways.

A ceiling was placed upon total new development based upon the automobile traffic it would generate. Planners believe changes in traffic patterns and major road improvements (including the extension of Woodmont Avenue west of Wisconsin) will comfortably accommodate a limited amount of new traffic. It is significant that the quantity of new development permitted by this formula, while enough to change forever the ragged profile of central Bethesda, is about a third less than what the zoning map would allow.

Under the leadership of John Westbrook, a former Rouse Co. official, the urban design division of the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission has played an unusually important role in the process. It has mandated buffer zones of parks, playgrounds and public buildings between the residential areas and the business district. It has defined a strategy to concentrate development in the heart of the town, and most importantly, it has participated directly in the design of the new projects.

The device, in Montgomery County, is called "optional method" zoning--a carrot-and-stick approach by which developers are awarded the right to build bigger and higher in exchange for providing public amenities such as plazas, sunlight, trees, artistic embellishments, street furniture, recreation and retail areas and so on. Elsewhere this is called "bonus zoning," but Westbrook hates to hear the words. "We're much more flexible," he says. "In New York City, with bonus zoning they got a lot of plazas that didn't work. We feel we can tailor the spaces individually."

In contrast to Rosslyn, where the combination of 1960s planning theory, private money and bad architecture resulted in an environment hostile to the pedestrian, and to Crystal City, where a similar combination put the pedestrian underground, the intention in Bethesda is to provide a lively, richly textured streetscape.

It could happen. The basic strategy of focusing on the central area immediately north and south of Wisconsin and Old Georgetown, instead of spreading the development along the entire strip, was sound. So, too, was the idea of providing a principal pedestrian plaza at the Bethesda Metro Center, and more intimate spaces elsewhere--a series of "places and paths," in Westbrook's words. In addition to that the planners have not hesitated to use their skills to get what they want from individual developers and architects who entered the competition.

Of course, when the competition was announced planners had no way of knowing how many parcels would be proposed or exactly where they would be. The response exceeded expectations.

"Developers apparently felt that this was it, their last chance," observes Jacob Pearce of the MNCPPC urban design staff. As it turns out, developers were right. If the planning board votes a full package (up to 4.25 million square feet) and all of the approved projects are built, it could mean the end of new large-scale development in Bethesda for a long time to come.

A lot of very large questions remain, however. A slide in the national economy could kill a number of projects, and even in the best of times there would be concern that the time frame--winning projects will be given 2 1/2 years to break ground--is too artificial and too short.

And there are weaknesses built into the grand plan. The willingness of the county government to fill in potentially harmful gaps in the proposed streetscape is in question. Even more important, despite generous incentives provided for residential construction, only one of the 10 proposals took the bait in any significant way.

This a major failing. The new Bethesda will consist largely of offices with ground-floor retail (with the exception of a large Hyatt Regency Hotel at Metro Center and, perhaps, one additional hotel). The county government has a chance to improve the mix substantially by subsidizing a large number of housing units on one large piece of publicly owned property in the area. Whether it has the wisdom and courage to do so remains to be seen.

Architecturally, the 14 projects are a piecemeal lot, from cut-and-dried ribbon-window Modernism to oddly exuberant gestures in the direction of Post-Modernism. It is some consolation that almost without exception the new proposals are better than the outlandishly bad Wisconsin Avenue high-rises of recent vintage, and the public spaces will be big improvements. The county's inventive, risk-taking urban designers are trying to run the show. If their gamble works, the whole of the new Bethesda will be significantly greater than its parts.