While Metro workers continue to burrow beneath Bethesda, the agency this month will offer developers the air rights to construct a huge public plaza and buildings above the subway station that county planners hope will revitalize the presently "undistinguished" center of the community.

Plans for the proposed Bethesda Metro Center, prepared by the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, call for creation of a multilevel complex of shops, office buildings, hotel and underground bus terminals and parking that the commission says could provide "a focal point and strong sense of identity" for downtown Bethesda. County planners now call central Bethesda a confused "mix of high and low buildings with no coherent sense of order."

Next month developers also will be invited to make major proposals for construction over the White Flint station, three stops further along the Metro Red Line to Shady Grove that is due to open in 1983.Several office and condominium buildings are being proposed over the White Flint station.

Metro planners now also are considering similar air-rights development over the Red Line's Rockville, Grosvenor and Shady Grove stations, at New Carrolton, the Navy Yard and several stations on the future subway to Glenmont that now ends at Silver Spring. Air-rights buildings already have been constructed over the Metro subway stops in Rosslyn and at Farragut North, and are to be under construction soon at Van Ness and Friendship Heights, both also on the Red Line.

But the county plans for development over the Bethesda station are considered among the most ambitious and imaginative so far. They have won almost universal praise from county officials, business people and Bethesda residents, a surprise to many planners accustomed to hearing citizens oppose high-rise development near their homes.

The four large office or condominium buildings, plaza, arcades of shops and underground bus terminal and parking proposed in the Bethesda Metro Center plan would replace what only three years ago was a small corner of one- and two-story buildings that included a drug store, a post office and movie theater, where in 1929 the Washington area's first movie sound system was installed.

"Generally we're delighted with the Bethesda Metro Center plan," said Helen Blunt, president of the Bethesda Coalition of Citizens Associations that represents most civic groups around the small central business district.

She said some residents have been concerned about how high the high-rise buildings would go -- the Montgomery Planning Board last month approved an 18-story office building on one corner of the Metro site, at Wisconsin Avenue and Old Georgetown Road. But she said there appears to be a sufficiently large buffer zone around residential areas.

The "sector," or master plan, for Bethesda forsees primarily an office area, not a busy commercial-retail center with department stores like the subway stops at Friendship Heights and White Flint.

Businesses in downtown Bethesda are similarly enthusiastic about the Metro Center plan. The Diplomat Restaurant, Brooks Photographers and Blackistone Florists across Wisconsin Avenue from the Metro Center all predict it will help their businesses and will be a major transportation boon for Bethesda residents and businesses.

The Hyman Construction Co., which has won approval to build the 18-story -- four stories higher than originally planned -- building at one corner of the Metro site, will build part of the public plaza and multilevel decks for the Metrobus loading areas, parking and short-term "kiss-and-ride" subway parking. The building will include three floors of condominium apartments.

Metro's chief property manager, Henry Cord, is optimistic. "People also said we wouldn't be able to get anyone to develop anything over the Van Ness-UDC station and now we have a major architectural firm, Hartman and Cox, and a major developer, the Prudential Life Insurance Co."

The design concept for the 3.5-acre Bethesda Metro Center proposes four tall buildings around a central plaza. Beside the already approved Hyman building, two buildings are proposed on Metro-owned land and the third on privately owned land on the corner of Montgomery Lane and the planned Woodmont Road extension. A four-story, 1,000-car county parking garage also is proposed nearby and plans call to keep the present Post Office on Wisconsin Avenue at Montgomery Lane. The height of the buildings on the southern side of the plaza would be limited to allow maximum sunlight into the plaza and the arcades of shops around it.