Once a port-of-call for the great brigantines and clippers from England, Spain and Holland and later an industrial center during American involvement in the two World Wars, the Alexandria waterfront has in the past two decades become an all but abandoned shoreline.

Today the old port can boast only of two power plants, the Robinson Terminal warehouses where The Washington Post stores its newsprint, a rendering plant, the old torpedo factory that has been partially turned into an art gallery and several boat repair shops. Acres of undeveloped land lie in between these establishments and the landscape is dotted with an abandoned tractor, steel pilings and unused storage tanks, Along the Alexandria waterfront today, silence is the overwhelming impression.

While plans for the redevelopment of the Alexandria waterfront remained stalled, a rebirth is predicted across the Potomac for the Georgetwon waterfront. The area, which has been rezoned from industrial to a variety of uses, is expected by planners to grow into a small town within the next 20 years. Plants currently are under way to construct a series of offices, hotels, apartment and commercial complexes as well as boat docks and parks along the waterfront in Georgetown.

So people involved in trying to resolve the issue say they detect signs of progress towards an eventual solution to the Alexandria waterfront problem, but such optimistic views have over the years taken on the characteristics of a desert mirages, constantly recurring yet always illusory.

"I think we are further away from an ultimate solution than we were two years ago," remarked State Sen. Wiley F. Mitchell (R-Alexandria), a former City Council member who has worked on the problem for years.

Over the years the controversy has included Congress, the Department of Interior and Justice, national and local environmental groups, the city of Alexandria and the U.S. courts.

Basically the dispute involves two separate but related issues. One, more than a century old, centers on whether the federal government or the city of Alexandria and private landowners have title to the 49 acres of land (19 of which are under water) that make up the bulk of the waterfront.This issue has been in the federal courts for more than four years and it is expected that it will be at least another year before it comes to trial.

The second problem deals with the redevelopment of the waterfront, a matter on which environmentalists, Alexandria officials, private landowners, and the federal government have not been able to agree.

The suit brought by the federal government against the private landowners along the waterfront and the city of Alexandria was filed at the instigation of conservationists. They have argued that the land actually is owned by the federal government and that it should be transformed into a national historic park. Until the title dispute is settled, no development can take place because insurance companies will not insure land over which there is an ownership dispute.

"Every time we almost came to a solution of this waterfront we had a war," remarked Alexandria Council member Ellen Pickering, a conservationist who has argued vehemently for a national park on the waterfront.

Over the years, numerous waterfront development plans have been drafted by the city, only to be discarded when the various parties could not agree over how much of the land should be developed.

"The big question," says Alexandria City Manager Douglas Harman, "is whether or not there could ever be some consensus between the conservationists who appear to want all that area as parkland and the (private) owners and the city."

"From the conservationists' standpoint," says Robert Montague, former president of the Northern Virginia Conservation Council, "we are still arguing for as much parkland on the waterfront as we can get."

The largest single privately-owned piece of property on the waterfront is that held by Herbert Bryant Associates. Bryant said in an interview that he would like to build a residential or commercial complex on the 17.5 acre plot located at the north end of the waterfront near the Potomac Electric Power Co. plant.

Bryant operated a fertilizer plant on the site until it was destroyed by fire in 1971, but now he believes that the Alexandria tax structure and high labor costs would make another industrial enterprise prohibitively expensive.

Bryant noted thathe and other landowners have been paying taxes to Alexandria for many years, and added that the private owners would expect fair compensation for any land that would be used for a park.

The latest waterfront plan, released by Alexandria last June, attempts to steer a middle course between the all-parkland and all-commercial concepts. It calls for a continuous pedestrian walkway along the length of the waterfront with 27 per cent of the land to be used for parks while 45 per cent would be devoted to industrial and mixed-use purposes, such as restaurants. The rest of the land is submerged.

Both the city and conservationists such as Pickering and Montague agree that the current water-related commercial and industrial enterprises, such as the boat club and Robinson Terminals, should be allowed to remain. But some conservationists said that the city plan calls for too much development.

"We have to create the kind of environment where the river and the city come together," explained Engin Artemel, the acting director of the Alexandria Planning and Community Development Department.

There currently are 11 private property owners along the waterfront, five of whom have substantial land holdings. Alexandria itself has acquired 15 acres of land along the waterfront and plans to turn most of the land into parks. With fewer individuals to deal with, some officials believe it will now be easier to reach agreement on a development plan.

The hope is that if the city, the landowners and the evironmentalists can finally agree on a redevelopment plan, the proposal again can be taken to Congress. In the past, about 10 bills to resolve the controversy, including the title dispute, have been killed in committees.

"The city has got to come up with a united policy, and if they do I'll be happy to introduce legislation from a federal viewpoint," said Rep. Herbert Harris (D-Va.), whose district includes Alexandria.

In the meantime, the title suit drones on.

It is an issue that is complicated by land swaps, high-water marks, bulkheads and changes in the Potomac's course over the past tow centuries. The controversy goes back to the creation of the District of Columbia as the site for the new federal capital.

On Jan. 24, 1791, Maryland and Virginia each contributed land to form Washington. Then in 1846 the federal government decided to return to the state of Virginia the portion of the land it has ceded and established the District of Columbia-Virginia boundary as the high-water mark of the Potomac on the Virginia shore the day of the original gift. Therein lies the conflict: Today no one knows the exact location of that 1791 line.

In 1945, Congress attempted to settle the jurisdictional disputes between Virginia and the District of Columbia that had plagued both governments since the 1791 boundary was established. This was done by establishing as arbitrary "pier-head" line off shore. Although the jurisdictional disputes were resolved, the Congress also reserved for itself the right to claim ownership east of the 1791 line, wherever that may be.

At the moment, the title lawsuit is being held up while the federal government completes test borings along the Alexandria waterfront to see if it can pinpoint the exact location of the 1791 line. At the same time, there is a growing belief by some city officials that the case never will come to trial because the government is not interested in going through an expensive legal proceeding if the issue can be resolved otherwise. If it it goes to trial, attorneys for both sides said eventually will end up in the Supreme Court.

Hubert Crean, one of three principal Justice Department attorneys on the case, denied this. "In terms of the complicated nature of the case, both factually and legally, it's been rigorously pursued since its inception in 1973."

Resolution of the suit would not mean agreement on the redevelopment plans for the waterfront. Alexandria officials note that the federal government has never clearly stated what it intends to do with the land should it get title to it.

"We have no reason to think based on the track record that the federal government would do anything with the waterfront. They would probably turn around and lease the property to the present owners." State Sen. Mitchell said.