The Alexandria City Council is about to begin the long and complex process of deciding what to do about its old and dilapidated jail and its increasingly cramped police headquarters. Both structures are in such poor shape that they have kept the sheriff's office, which administers the jail, from receiving federal funds and, according to local police officials, have decreased police efficiency.

Last week, the City Council received a long-awaited consultants' report proposing four options for the two facilities, which are on the same block in the Old Town area, at N. Saint Asaph, Princess and N. Pitt streets.

The consultants suggested that both buildings be remodeled at the present location or that one or both facilities be moved from the downtown area.

The debate over which proposal to adopt is almost sure to raise some of the same questions that have come up in past consideration of subjects such as the Torpedo Plant complex, the waterfront and the changing nature of the 230-year old city: What will happen to the established neighborhoods, and how will the quality of life be affected?

In proposing the four options, the consultants -- the VVKR architectural and consulting firm and Phillips Swager Associates -- recommended that the council adopt the most compreshensive and expensive of the four. This would involve finding a six-acre site in the city and building new facilities for both the jail and police headquarters. That project would cost at estimated $17 million. (The least expensive of the four projects was estimated at $4.9 million).

Relocating both the jail and the police headquarters might mean their present Old Town site would be sold for pirvate development, increasing the already-high value placed on townhouses in the neighborhood, according to city staff. Such an action could put pressure on the city housing authority to sell the subsidized housing complexes in the area, since the mortgages on those 30-year old complexes will be paid off shortly, several knowledgeable city observers have said.

But a furious hue and cry also is likely if a new jail complex is built in a residential community. One Alexandria resident sardonically remarked that building the jail near the planned Braddock Road Metro stop, a stable neighborhood of moderately priced houses, would "at least make for a fast getaway."

It also would make for some lively public hearings, if the idea ever goes forward.

City Manager Douglas Harman has made no recommendation as to which of the four options he prefers. He did point out to the seven council members, however, that construction costs in the city are increasing by $1,000 a month, making it unwise to delay such a project as a new jail complex.

Construction of new jail and police facilities would be expected to take slightly more than three years.

Sections of the white brick city jail date back to the 18th century, when they were the city's poorhouse. The facilities are so far below comtemporary jail standards that last March, the federal Law Enforcement Assistance Administration refused to turn over $250,000 to the city until the city came up with a plan for the money "other than using (it) to enhance the life expectancy of the substandard jail," according to a report by Sheriff Michael A. Norris.

In the same report, Norris noted that problems at the jail include inadequate electrical wiring, fire hazards, poor design for security and overcrowded conditions in which as many as 114 prisoners (state-set capacity is 98) may be held at one time in the facility.

At the nearby police headquarters, which was built in 1959 and is the city's only police station, facilities are so crowded that officers have difficulty moving around, according to a report by Police Chief Charles T. Strobel.

Under all the proposals, the jail would be enlarged to eventually accommodate 200 prisoners, under conditions that would be safer for the deputies and inmates, the report states, and police officers no longer would bump knees at their desks.

The consultants recommended phasing out the "existing jail facility at the earliest possible date," and replacing it immediately or gradually with a larger, modern building.

In the first proposal, the consultants suggested making improvements to both facilities at their present locations, in part because "citizens . . . are familiar with day-to-day activities" there. If that proposal is adopted, the report states, the jail could later be expanded at the Old Town Location.

The second plan -- the one consultants recommended that the city adopt -- is the fanciest and most expensive. It involves choosing six acres from one of nearly two dozen sites scattered along the eastern and southern edges of the city, and building a new police department-jail complex. A six-acre site, according to the report, would allow for future expansion without disrupting neighboring areas.

City Manager Harman told the council that one advantage of that plan would be that the current 1.9-acre Old Town site could be sold and the proceeds used to help pay for the new complex. Most of the potential sites for such a complex are near the Beltway, the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Southern Railroad yards or in other undeveloped parts of the city. One property is near the George Washington Parkway, where owner Charles Fairchild has been saying for years that he will build another Rosslyn-style office complex.

Other potentially controversial locations include the Bryant property on the north waterfront, near the Vepco plant, the Parker Gray School near the future Braddock Road Metro site and the intersection of Rte. 1 and Four Mile Run.

Law enforcement officials said for reasons of efficiency and safety, police stations and jails are usually located near each other. That requirement would be met under the second proposal.

The third and fourth proposals are similiar to each other in that the jail or the police headquarters would remain at its current location, with the other being be moved to a new site. Whether the jail or the police headquarters remains, either would be able to expand by using land vacated by the other operation, according to the consultants. The relocated facility would be placed on a site of perhaps three acres or so, which also would have to be selected by the council.

The council has scheduled a work session on the jail proposals for Feb. 5, at which time a citizens task force, to be appointed by Mayor Charles E. Beatley Jr., is expected to comment on the proposals.