A controversial proposal for a large residential and commercial complex on the Georgetown waterfront moved a step closer to reality yesterday as the federal Fine Arts Commission gave partial approval to the latest design for the site.

While the commission still prefers a Potomac River shoreline park without any development, commission chairman J. Carter Brown said he and three other commissioners were "very impressed with the architectural quality" of the proposal submitted by architect Arthur Cotton Moore. Moore's plan calls for curving buildings surrounding a yacht basin.

But Brown and the other commissioners said that Moore's proposal for two 86-foot-high residential and commercial buildings abutting the Whitehurst Freeway were too tall and too bulky. He said the commission would not approve any structures taller than 60 feet.

Developer Herbert S. Miller, whose earlier more massive proposal was rejected by the commission last December, said he would send Moore back to the drawing board to try to accommodate the commission's complaints. The taller buildings would be behind the curving structures facing the Potomac that Brown said the commission would approve.

"We're very pleased with the response" of the commission, said Miller, president of Western Development Corp., a partner with Chessie Resources in the proposed development. "We will attempt to deal with (the building height problem) in a responsible economic way."

But Miller said that the developers had already "made tremendous economic concessions," giving up nearly 50 percent of the 1.4 million square feet of residential and commercial floor space that existing waterfront zoning would permit.

Moore said he would have the revised architectural renderings back to the commission in time for its next meeting, April 8.

Though the commission cannot veto the plan, its actions on the development proposal are important because its recommendations to the city government have rarely been overturned.

Yesterday's partial approval of Moore's design was only the second time that the commission had expressed any support for Georgetown waterfront development. The other time, coincidentally for another Moore design, was in 1973, but that proposal later was abandoned.

Under Moore's current design, 350 to 400 condominium and town house units would be built, selling for $130,000 up to $500,000. In addition, there would be about 320,000 square feet of commercial retail and office space in the development.

The 3.43-acre development, costing at least $60 million, would be interspersed with walkways leading to the Potomac and to slightly more than 15 acres of parkland, mostly to the west of the complex, toward Key Bridge.

But the commission and many Georgetown residents think that any development on the waterfront -- now a tawdry site with a cement plant and parking lots -- would be a drastic mistake. They favor purchasing the land, at a price of up to $40 million, for a park. Under law, however, the commission must review development proposals even though it favors the park.

Sen. Mark O. Hatfield (R-Ore.) has held hearings on a bill that would purchase the land for a park, but the Interior Department opposes the measure. Hatfield, a spokesman said yesterday, is confident that a bill authorizing the purchase of the 5.9 acres that are privately held will pass the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee within the next two months.

Robert McGowan, president of Chessie Resources, a railroad conglomerate, told the commission he had investigated the prospects for congressional funding of a park and found them to be "just about zero."

But that sentiment did not stop several Georgetown activists from attacking the proposed development. They said Moore's plan might be architecturally innovative, but that it would be too vast for Georgetown and that the traffic it would generate would further clog the community's crowded streets.

"I don't want to take exception with the design," said Elizabeth Rome, former chairman of the National Capital Planning Commission. "It's just in the wrong place."

Grosvenor Chapman, former president of the Georgetown Citizens Association, described the development as "inappropriate for Georgetown.

"People will come [to the waterfront] believing they're seeing historic Georgetown," he said. "A lot of people will come and think they're seeing Disneyland."

Another development opponent, Katharine Sullivan, a Georgetown advisory neighborhood commissioner, called the development a "fanciful, Watergate Roman amphitheater."

She gave the four Fine Arts commissioners a cartoon that depicted Georgetown in 1984 with a spiraling tower and other large buildings. Since Moore's design also has a tower in the yacht basin, Sullivan, holding the cartoon aloft, jibed, "If looks like we might be approaching this before 1984."