The Tivoli Theater, a tarnished jewel from 14th Street's past, awaits resurrection or the wrecking ball--a simple, straightforward choice. Or so it would seem.

On architectural grounds the theater merits survival and rebirth. A handsome 1923 building that holds a key neighborhood corner well, the Tivoli has qualities we don't see enough of in contemporary architecture--effortless charm and easy elegance tempered by robust good sense.

And despite its peeling paint, leaking roof and broken windows, the building at 14th and Park Road NW apparently is structurally sound. With its first-floor parade of two-story shops along 14th Street, boarded up for several years, the building would seem to be a once-happy event waiting to reoccur as the ideal centerpiece of redevelopment and renewal of a close-to-downtown city neighborhood.

Unfortunately, though not surprisingly, the fate of the Tivoli depends less upon a sympathetic, reasoned evaluation of its architectural and urban design qualities than upon which side wins a bitter dispute complicated by personalities, politics, time-hardened attitudes and demographic and racial change in the Columbia Heights community.

To an outsider, the debate has a certain surreal character. Both sides rightfully can claim to be on the side of the angels. Each eagerly anticipates the arrival of more jobs, stores, community services and entertainment in a neighborhood still struggling to overcome the disastrous effects of the 1968 riots.

But according to one side, consisting of the developers (the Park Central Development Corporation), the District's Redevelopment Land Agency (which owns the land) and some local residents, the Tivoli is simply an outdated, unlovely obstruction. On the other side, consisting of other residents (organized by president Eric Graye as Save the Tivoli Inc.), the District's historic preservation office (which has recommended preserving the building on esthetic and historical grounds) and supportive preservation groups, renovating the Tivoli building is the key to the whole process.

A philosophical time warp partially explains this difference. The Tivoli block is but one part of an 11-acre redevelopment parcel assembled by the RLA in the wake of the riots. The RLA idea for this huge urban plot has reflected assumptions carried over from the '60s--clear the land and build anew--and the proposal advanced by the developers responds to this. (This plan is being contested in court by Save the Tivoli.)

Jessie Witherspoon Jr., executive officer of the development company and a resident of Columbia Heights from 1958 to 1973, sums up the attitude and suggests something of the embedded bitterness of the controversy when he says, "We're not talking about the past, we're talking about survival, about living now . . . These people preservationists waited until we're ready to put bricks and mortar up there . . . Everybody wants to stop progress."

A strong suspicion of the historic preservation movement in mostly black, inner-city areas such as Columbia Heights lends intensity to the debate. In many cases this suspicion is legitimate. The link between preservation and gentrification, which results in the displacement of people unable to afford the increase in housing costs, has been undeniable in residential areas such as Capitol Hill.

But in this case the argument is irrelevant: Saving the Tivoli, or not, has nothing to do with residential displacement. A more vicious irrelevancy is the argument that the Tivoli should go because it once was a segregated institution. The theater is not, after all, the Bastille.

What the developers actually have proposed is to tear down the building and to replace it with a three-story commercial structure on the corner of 14th and Park Road and a smaller commercial building at the other end of the block, along 14th and Monroe streets. In between would stretch a long parking lot serving a large neighborhood supermarket to be constructed toward the rear of the block.

There is no quarrel with the need for a larger, improved grocery in the neighborhood--everybody wants it--nor any justifiable argument against the notion of convenience stores and fast food operations on the spot. These are badly needed, especially in view of the fact that the subsidized low- and moderate-income housing units recently erected along 14th Street are poorly equipped with ground-floor retail outlets. But the model described above is basically a suburban scheme inappropriately set in a dense urban environment.

To put a parking lot in the place of the Tivoli is a serious mistake.

The crux of the matter is the building's practical value to the redevelopment effort. It is not simply a theater building. I doubt seriously if there is an architect in town who could design from scratch a string of stores to rival those unused places between the pilasters and rounded arches of the Tivoli building's 14th Street fac,ade. And even if it could be done, why repeat the effort? This 60-year-old commercial building stylishly defines an inviting urban street--precisely what the neighborhood needs.

Besides that, the rounded marquee at the corner covers as a door waiting to open on the sort of grand spaces that once were commonplace, and now would be the envy of any city's eye.

Admittedly, as a feasibility study commissioned by Save the Tivoli will suggest (it is due out later this month), there is no demand for a 2,500-seat theater in this location. But Craig Morrison, the Philadelphia restoration architect who did the architectural part of this study, believes the theater could comfortably be cut down to manageable size, and that the elegant lobby and the rest of the auditorium could be put to any number of good, ingenious and profitable uses.

Finally, the historical value of the building is beyond dispute. It was designed by Thomas Lamb, one of the nation's better and more prolific theater architects in the golden days of the movie palace. Lamb, like the other significant movie-palace architects, was a thorough-going eclectic. Among his other Washington credits was the Art Deco Trans-Lux Theater downtown, destroyed in 1975. By contrast his earlier design for the Tivoli has a very nice Renaissance order to it, spiced with polychrome terra cotta details and a bracketed cornice underneath a tile roof, in an Italianate style.

Things may be looking up for the Tivoli. Tax laws favor preservation and restoration. The Redevelopment Land Agency recently withdrew its application for a demolition permit. The Joint Committee on Landmarks is expected to vote soon on the landmark recommendation.

And it is a curious thing that the development team, which consists of some very big-deal citizens (including Dart Drug president Herbert H. Haft, real estate magnate J. Gerald Lustine, businessman Arthur McZier, architect Robert J. Nash, and Witherspoon), proposes "a unique enclave of specialized activities--food and drink, entertainment, art and culture--that can exert a magnetic pull on the broader metropolitan and tourist markets."

This is a formula that has worked for once dilapidated, now rejuvenated movie halls in countless other cities--"Movie Palaces: Renaissance and Re-use," published last year, is a little paperback encyclopedia of examples--and it is a formula that perfectly fits the Tivoli and Columbia Heights.