George Washington University's proposed $40 million office and commerical development just off Pennsylvania Avenue drew heavy criticism this week from the city's Joint Committee on Landmarks.

Although the project will incorporate the last remaining row of Victorian houses facing the avenue, the committee charged that it would virtually "overwhelm . . . and destroy" the historic buildings it is designed to save.

The criticism by the historic preservation advisory board, along with similar criticism from public and private groups, was aired at the first of a series of public hearings on the project before the D.C. Zoning Commission. s

The university was praised for the concept of retaining the 13 townhouses in the 200 block of I Street NW, known as Red Lion Row after a tavern once in their midst.

But both the original and a recently-modified design were criticized because they call for the demolition of the rear two-thirds of most of the historic buildings, leaving only the original facades.

The size of the proposed office building behind them also drew fire. The 13-story, block-long office building would be one of the largest private office buildings in the District and would overwhelm the three-story townhouses only 15 feet away, according to the Don't Tear It Down organization. A glass galleria roof would extend from the rear of the houses to the office building, creating a two-story commerical indoor mall.

Don't Tear It Down, which almost single-handedly saved Washington's old Post Office on Pennsylvania Avenue and the nearby Willard Hotel, has fought to preserve Red Lion Row for almost five years. It helped register the group of houses as an historic landmark and sued the previous owner to stop their demolition.

The preservation group has praised the galleria as "a particularly interesting idea" and said in recent testimony before the Joint Committee on Landmarks that "the approach of the university . . . is fundamentally sound."

But it said "the problem . . . is that there really is no preservation. . . . Apparently the reason that the row buildings will be virtually demolished is so that the university can create more parking spaces for the new office building without incurring any expense for shoring up the row buildings."

The university plans a 215-car underground garage beneath the office buildings and the present townhouses.

In a four-hour presentation before the Zoning Commission Monday, the university claimed that most of Red Lion Row is in poor condition, cannot economically be restored and said it felt it had made just about all the concessions it could to meet objections raised by the joint committee and such civic groups as Don't Tear It Down.

The university already has redesigned the mass of the office building, though not reducing its height or size; agreed to lower the galleria roof, and made changes to new townhouse-sized buildings that would fill in the gaps in Red Lion Row where parking lots and a 1949 building now stand.

University vice president Charles E. Diehl told the commission "the city government and the Joint Committee on Landmarks actively encouraged the university to acquire" Red Lion Row and renovate the buildings because the previous owner was demolishing them. "We are preserving the 19th century steetscape . . . (but) it requires a taller office building because the useful site is reduced by the preservation."

He urged the commission to expedite the hearing process, threatening that if the project is not approved by March, the university could lose its financing and might decide to tear down the buildings and put up an ordinary office building on the site, which is possible under existing zoning.

However, under strict city preservation laws, landmark buildings cannot be demolished except in unusual circumstances and usually only with the blessing of the Joint Committee on Landmarks.

The Zoning Commission already had set aside Jan. 5 and Jan. 26 for further hearings.