Should the bureaucrats in Robert Mills' becolumned Treasury Building be moved out so members of Congress can live there? Should the Tariff Commission building, another of Mills' 19th-century Greek temples downtown, be converted into housing for ordinary mortals? Should the long-awaited memorial to Franklin Roosevelt be moved from its appointed spot by the Tidal Basin and built in the middle of a busy downtown intersection? The answers may well be, "No," "No" and "No," in that order, but, preposterous as the questions seem, they were seriously put by architect David Schwarz and his team examining the "Retail Core" during a recent design conference on the fast rebuilding old downtown. The point was, and is, "Wake up!"

Millions of words -- cheap commodities -- have been spent in the last decade, all with the announced intention of creating a "living" downtown. Millions of dollars have been spent with, more or less, the same thing in mind. But the goal still seems distant. With a few exceptions, mostly confined to the area under the jurisdiction of the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corp., there's been a serious lack of follow-through.

What the Schwarz questions strongly suggest is that the vision is lacking, too. Generalities are not enough. What is needed is a big idea, or, to be more precise, lots of hard, pragmatic, specific little ideas that together equal something big enough to catch the imagination. And then, of course, a means to put those ideas in motion.

The conference, sponsored by the Downtown Partnership, a public-private organization established three years ago, was itself a positive step. It took place over two days during which four teams, each consisting of an architect, a planner, an artist and a landscape architect, gathered to brainstorm four topics -- the retail core, the arts district, the Convention Center and "edges and structures" -- and then convened to present their ideas to a panel of critics.

Many good ideas, and a few bad ones, got aired, although the teams, as they were well aware, were not playing with a full deck. Their mandate was to deal with "design" issues, but they kept running up against the realities of economics, zoning, land ownership and land use, the realities that form the all-important context in which good (and bad) design takes place.

The overwhelming economic reality downtown is the continuing demand for office space. There's nothing inherently wrong with this. It's a fact. Office buildings are needed; the city does most of its work in them. But they are the cheapest kind of building to build, the "highest and best use" of the land, as developers say, from the point of view of profitability, and they are encouraged by the government's chief policy tool in this area -- zoning. It's an unfortunate combination because it encourages a concentration of big, single-use buildings that is the antithesis of a "living" downtown.

Hence the Schwarz team's big, seemingly outrageous proposals for the Treasury and Tariff Commission buildings. "Look," went the message, "if we're really serious about a living downtown we've got to put people there, and to make this work we've got to do it in a big way." This is correct, as is the implication that without major changes in public policy it won't happen. (Changes in zoning, zoning incentives, subsidies and transfers of development rights were suggested.)

The proposal to plunk an FDR memorial at 12th and F streets NW was another mischievous scheme with a method to it: Downtown needs a dramatic, nowhere-but-here attention-getter to lure visitors northward from the Mall across the massive barrier of the Federal Triangle. Actually, in my view, what it needs is lots of smaller signs of vitality. One suggestion was for a nighttime laser structure along F Street -- a bang-up notion in view of the fact that Rockne Krebs, the inventor of such structures, lives in Washington and has for years been waiting for just such an opportunity.

Getting artists into the image action was in fact a common theme. Architect Colden Florance's team suggested a "major, massive" public commitment to prominent, temporary, site-specific art pieces to better define downtown's edges. Architect David King's "arts district" team suggested that artists be involved in designing signs, street lights and even the sidewalks and streets themselves. Architect Sibley Jennings' group recommended that artists be employed to help create "special places" at the edges of the Convention Center. These ideas need more focus -- without it, one could end up with a sort of art litter -- but they are inherently imaginative, potentially soul-stirring and, given the District government's new initiatives in the area of public art, they're achievable.

The idea of an arts district downtown, focused upon Seventh, Eighth and E streets, has a long history, although the question remains: Will it happen? The arts district team recommended that the area be seen as an "arts marketplace," rather than as a haven for working artists (who are, of course, being driven out by new development). It seems a natural -- there are all those museums on the Mall, and several arts establishments already in place along Seventh Street -- but it'll take hard work and some kind of government support. Even then, one has to wonder -- high rents and the size and architectural sterility of so many of the new buildings do not augur well.

Architectural sterility was much on the minds of the conferees. All, in one form or another, recommended that tight urban design standards be put in place for the entire downtown, mandating, especially, the breaking up of huge new buildings (e.g., the new Columbia Square on F Street between 13th and 12th) at ground floor to reduce their apparent bulk and to make them more appealing to shoppers.

This is all well and good, but I was surprised at the lack of attention given to historic preservation: It's sadly true that not even the very best of the new downtown buildings "meets the street," as architects like to say, as well as the rows of smaller, older buildings still by some miracle in place along much of F, G and Seventh streets do. As shabby as some of them look today, these buildings are as crucial to the character of the emerging downtown as they were to the place in its heyday. Maybe even more crucial.

Some attention was given to public spaces -- although the area bounded by Seventh and 15th streets and Pennsylvania and New York avenues is surrounded by parks, there are none within its boundaries. I wonder, however, given the absence of publicly owned land there, if we would not do better to concentrate on the streets themselves as public spaces, as generators of vitality. One of the critics pointed out that 40 percent of downtown land is occupied by streets, a phenomenal amount of potentially exciting, though currently blighted, space. (Almost everybody agreed that the "pedestrian plazas" in front of the Martin Luther King Library and the National Portrait Gallery could be redesigned to entice people instead of, as now, putting them off.)

There were lots of excellent little ideas: Reduce parking rates on weekends, don't allow buildings to sit empty (as they now do) for long periods, put cleared sites to a variety of temporary uses, change city building regulations to prevent flat fac ades and so on. And, besides preservation, there were other glaring omissions: Chinatown, the area's one incontestable existing draw, was sloughed off; nor was any mention made of increasing the size of the District government's planning staff, which would be key to the kind of oversight necessary to achieve any ambitious idea.

And the city's comprehensive plan was ignored. This plan, often dismissed as a grab bag, something-for-everybody document, does contain intelligent guidelines for downtown redevelopment, including some of the selfsame notions cherished at the conference. It says, for instance, that the zoning codes should be changed to support "urban design objectives ... to encourage the emergence of specialized districts, and to assist in achieving a greater diversity and mix of uses than would otherwise occur."

The challenge is to make the government live up to its words. It's exactly as Carol Thompson, deputy mayor for economic development, said toward the end of the two-day gathering: "I think people have been dancing around the {zoning} issue, but we've got to grapple with it."