The letter to then District of Columbia City Council chairman John Nevius had a decidedly nervous tone to it.

Sheldon Bernstein, writing in January 1974, was an officer of a real estate investment firm assembling property in the Mount Vernon Square area of the proposed Eisenhower Civic Center. Now the firm, Prime Land Bank, was worried because the project was running into strong opposition from some council members.

Bernstein urged prompt approval of the center promising that his firm would invest "in excess of $50 million" to build a hotel retail complex adjacent to the project and to connect the center to the subway stop at 7th and H streets NW via an underground shopping plaza.

The center proposal was soon passed by the council only to be blocked by objections in Congress, particularly those of House District appropriations subcommittee chairman William Natcher (D-Ky.) A mortgage lender eventually foreclosed on most of Prime Land Bank's property holdings near the center site.

Today, more than four years later, a somewhat different convention center proposal for the Mount Vernon Square area is still on the drawing boards. Natcher has become an advocate of the project and most of those who own land on or near the center site are as anxious as ever for its construction. The proposed site is bounded by New York Avenue and H, 9th and 11th streets NW.

"I think it would be a great shot in the arm for the old downtown," said Irwin Edlavitch, whose Atlantic Garage parking lots in blocks adjacent to the proposed center site make his firm the fifth largest landholder in that area. The value and those of others in the area, of his holdings would probably increase markedly in value were the center to be built.

Edlavitch said he started assembling land in the downtown area about 12 years ago, long before 1971, when the Mount Vernon Square section began to be mentioned as a possible convention center site.

"I'm not a developer. I prefer staying in the industry I know best," Edlavitch said some months ago. "I lived through the (1968) riots and everything else that followed, but I had a vision that some day the area would revive and be prosperous."

Most of the property owners on and around the proposed convention center site have held land in this section of the downtown for many years, according to land records. But a few, like Prime Land Bank, bought into the area after learning of plans for the centers.

The two blocks immediately adjacent to the center are expected to be more valuable to property owners than the lots owned on the site itself, in that that property can be assembled and sold to private developers. They, in turn would build the hotels and restaurants to service the anticipated increase in convention visitors to the city as a result of the center's opening.

But there have been expectations of a convention center's construction before, and developers have become cautious about making any definite plans.

Edlavitch, along with others, noted that a center has been talked about for the past four years or more, "and at the 11th hour they turn around and kill it . . . it's a darn shame."

Property values now run about $35 to $40 a square foot near the site compared to $130 to $140 a square foot for lots in prime sections west of 15th Street NW, according to Robert Klugel, a senior assessor for the D.C. Department of Finance and Revenue.

However, according to the most recent figures from Klugel's office, lots in the area sell for $50 or more a square foot when purchased for the purpose of assembling a land package for future development.

But Klugel said many of the lot assemblies were put together some time ago, in anticipation of the Eisenhower Center or earlier, and there has been no recent assembling of property in the area.

Among the biggest landholders adjacent to the center site are the Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Co.: Woodward & Lothrop; the family of real estate investor Rose Schlein; downtown parking executive Leonard (Bud) Doggett; Edlavitch; the Greyhound bus firm; Jonage Printing Co.; the Frank Corp., which owns a chain of women's apparel stores; Ninth and Eye Associates, a corporation owned by the heirs of trash hauler and developer William Cohen; the real estate investment firm of Goldstein & Small; and May Stores, which owns Hecht Co.

Since the proposed convention center is expected to help spark or at least contribute to the revitalization of the old downtown property east of 15th Street NW. those who hold land in the entire old downtown area will likely profit as well from the project.

The term old downtown is used by city planners to describe a section of the city north from Pennsylvania Avenue, between 15th and 3rd streets NW, that was once the core business district before development moved further west along K Street and Connecticut Avenue NW.

Among the largest private owners of land in the old downtown area is parking magnate and developer Dominie F. Antonelli Jr., and some of his parking lots and office buildings lie within blocks of the proposed center.

If and when the District government begins purchasing property to build the convention center it plans to acquire the land by right of eminent domain. The procedure would allow the city to bypass traditional buyer-seller negotiations and thus purchase the land it needs more cheaply.

Owners of the adpacent properties, however, can hold out for the best price from would-be developers.

"We intend to contact hotels once the civic center is a go and offer our ground for a hotel," said David E. Frederick, whose 800 K Street Associates partnership owns numerous lots in the 800 block of K Street NW. The property was assembled more than 10 years ago.

Frederick's group bought the property before 1968, but since the riots that year, "I've been operating at a loss," Frederick said, echoing the lament of most other owners in the area. "The taxes, insurance and operating costs of the properties far exceed the rent (he is able to get.)"

All that will change if the center is built, according to Knox Banner, executive director of the D.C. Office of Business and Economic Development. He predicted the doubling of land values, and the increased assessments will mean increased city tax revenues.

But the anticipated financial gain for land owners and developers in the downtown area is a major reason which the proposed center has met with vehement opposition from many civic organizations.

The District government will own and operate the center, probably hiring a private firm to manage the facility, but the out-of-town visitors who will be the predominant users will be spending most of their money for hotels, restaurants, transportation and some shopping.

"This whole project is basically a subsidy to private industry," complained economist Jack Phelan. He said the city's plans to use the right of eminent domain to condemn the property "just means getting land for the project for a private group's benefit at below cost."

And, like Natcher once insisted, Phelan thinks something this important ought to be decided by a referendum. He, for one, thinks the voters would turn it down.

There has been some speculation that the convention center controversy could turn into a campaign issue if opponents of the project decide to take their anger out against candidates supporting the center.

The three major Democratic mayoral candidates, Mayor Walter Washington, council chairman Sterling Tucker and at-large councilman Marion Barry, all favor the center's construction as proposed. Some lesser-known Democratic mayrol candidates, and the man considered the leading Republican mayroal candidate, Arthur Fletcher, do not.

"All the top candidates are sticking together on this issue because it's an election year," said Phelan, who argued that the people who want the center and would most benefit by its construction are the same people who help bankroll city elections here.

Records of campaign contributors in past city elections show that both Washington and Tucker have been strong favorites with members of the realty, hotel, labor, retail and banking interests who have long pushed for construction of a convention center. Barry has drawn support to a lesser degree from these same sources, most particularly among influential members of the Metropolitan Washington Boards of Trade.

Among land owners in the convention center site area who have contributed to one, two or all three city officials in the past are Doggett, a personal friend of the mayor's; Antonelli; Woodward & Lothrop executive Ed Hoffman and other executives of the department store. C&P executives; Edlavitch Goldstein & Small; and a representative of the Jonage Printing Co. Political donations ranged from $100 to several hundred dollars up to $1,000, the legal limit for an individual contributor for each candidate.

All three mayoral candidates denied that campaign contributions played any role in their support of a center.

All three also said a referendum on the center would only delay a project that has already gone through public hearings and been approved by the council.

Fletcher, an attorney and mayoral candidate for the D.C. Republican Party, said he has numerous reservations about the convention center project and intends to make it an issue in his campaign.

"I think the center will be a plus for the city but I'm not at all convinced this one proposal is the way to go," Fletcher said. "The convention center ought to be a private investment, and there ought to be a referendum.

Whether or not the proposed convention center becomes a campaign issue, the property owners in the site area see the center as a vital component in the downtown's new redevelopment.

Members of the hotel and trade industries have been talking about the need for a convention center for years.In 1973 all the city's banks put up a $600,000 loan to finance most of a study for the Eisenhower Center. The appropriation for the currently proposed center includes funds to repay the banks for that earlier study.

Back then, Doggett served on the board of directors for the Eisenhower Convention Center Corp., and key members of the Federal City Council and the Board of Trade helped lobby for the project.

The Eisenhower Center proposal was abandoned in 1974 after Natcher, who raised questions about its Financing and sought a referendum on the project, led his subcommittee in voting against its construction.

Edlavitch said he owns "an awful lot of property east of 15th Street NW and hopes the convention center spurs development in his direction.

"Everybody thought I was very foolish to assemble that 12 years ago," he said."I had to really feed it because parking (fees) in no way took care of the debt service and taxes."

Now his holdings are in good shape, he said, "and if that center goes up, I don't think we're going to have any problem with development coming in."

NEXT: The human impact of the proposed center.