For three years, Waterside Mall's parking lot near Fourth and M streets SW played host to the rattling of cement mixers, the drilling of goggled hard-hat workers and the dust and dirt of construction from Metro's Waterfront subway station.

During those years, store owners suffered as above-ground construction of the Green Line station kept away shoppers who said getting past the rubble wasn't worth the trip. But when that construction was completed three years ago, residents hoped better days were coming for Waterside Mall, along with retail jobs and services to a section of the city that had little of either.

Today, however, the inside of Waterside Mall is a cavernous shell where sounds bounce off boarded shop fronts and echo through long, empty hallways. Its owner, Bresler & Reiner Inc., is under fire from some of the area's low-income public housing tenants, their more affluent high-rise dwelling neighbors and community leaders who say the mall hasn't attracted nearly as many of the stores and services they want and need.

Waterside Mall takes up 10 city acres between Fourth and M and Sixth and I streets SW and leases space to the Environmental Protection Agency and 30 retail shops and services. Residents complain that instead of credit unions and fast-food restaurants, Southwest needs bakeries and shoe and clothing stores.

"It was a multi-purpose mall that never really materialized," said City Council Member John Wilson (D-Ward 2), noting that low-income residents with limited means for shopping probably suffer most. "I chalk it up to the fact that nobody ever does anything for the poor."

Additionally, mall shopkeepers, who report that business is still suffering, are unhappy that Metro's Waterfront Station is not expected to open till the mid-1980s, nearly 10 years later than originally scheduled.

But participants in almost a decade of the mall's ups and downs believe recent sparks in Southwest's commercial development may include a new flicker of hope for Waterside Mall.

At least five developers are scrambling for the rights -- to be awarded by the city's Redevelopment Land Agency by the end of the year -- to build an office, retail and cultural complex on the last parcel of undeveloped commercial land in Southwest. That parcel, the Portal Site, is at the foot of the 14th Street Bridge just eight blocks from the mall.

Also nearby, ground was broken Tuesday at Fourth and D streets on The Design Center, a regional wholesale business complex that, with the Portal Site, is expected to generate hundreds of jobs, millions of dollars in tax revenues and thousands of shoppers for Southwest. Meanwhile, a District government study on the commercial revitalization of Waterside Mall is due this spring.

Many see this renewed interest and activity, and especially the people who will be attracted to the area, as a way to wake up the sleepy giant the mall has become.

Waterside Mall was, in some ways, to be a showplace of early urban renewal efforts that started in Southwest in 1952 and replaced slums with low-income housing, luxury apartments and landscaped parks. Some observers believe the problems facing Waterside Mall may have an impact on decisions made on other projects in the area and near Southeast.

For now, however, it may get a much needed boost from the same. "Anything that is a betterment to the area is a boom . . . , anything that brings people down here," said Charles Bresler, one of the mall's developers.

Some Southwest residents have been at odds with Bresler -- exchanging accusations and innuendo -- about why the mall has never seemed like a bustling center of community activity. Critics call it a "deplorable eyesore" and "fast-food pitstop" that serves nearby government workers better than local residents.

One such critic is Carol Cowgill, chairwoman of the Save Our Mall Committee, organized in 1976 to help the mall during a slump caused by Metro construction. Cowgill looks to the mall's management to bring stores and services to the community.

An arm of the Southwest Assembly comprised of residents from Southwest's lower- and upper-income households, Save Our Mall has been unsuccessful in getting its shopping list of stores and services residents say they want in the mall.

"A hardware store. A bakery. Shoe store. Apparel line. Book and stationery store. Auto parts. . . . I could go on and on," said Cowgill.

For each of the shops the committee suggests, Bresler scratches them off the list with pencil-sharp explanations: "There's a bakery in the Safeway. . . . A shoe store at nearby L'Enfant Plaza. . . . Dime stores, there are no more."

Save Our Mall has suggested that the mall lease vacant theater space to the Roth's Theatre chain. Bresler isn't sure that would be practical: "Every apartment here has HBO a cable movie service where you can get first-rate movies and a can of beer without putting your shirt on."

Reeves, Cowgill and Gottleib Simon, executive director of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 2D, say that in the past Bresler has been uncooperative and unresponsive to their efforts to get more of the services they want.

But Bresler blames Metro for the mall's problems. "It's the uncertainty of when Metro is coming back. Businesses want to know if and when their businesses are going to be interrupted," Bresler said. "People over the years have come to realize the problem is Metro, not so much me."

(Metro spokesman Cody Pfanstiehl said work on the inside of the Waterfront station may resume as early as next year with the first subway riders passing through around 1986.)

Others speculate why Waterside Mall does not have the shops residents want and why many of the mall's small shops are struggling.

One reason, although both Bresler and shop owners declined to comment, may be the cost of renting the stores. Asked whether rates were too high to attract businesses, Bresler said they are comparable to, if not less than, rates for similar space elsewhere in the city.

Others point the finger at an "anti-business complexion" in the city that discourages major retail chains by mandating high wage standards. Businessman John Hechinger, developer of Northeast's acclaimed Hechinger mall, said that any such "complexion" would likely affect industry more so than the retail business. Hechinger said Southwest has great business potential but would be impractical for his hardware/home improvement company since there are few single-family homeowners there.

Bresler concludes that Southwest's diverse neighborhood lifestyles make it hard for businesses to target a clientele. Businesses don't know if their customers will be an 18-year-old Rodney Marshall, the oldest of five children who lives in the public housing projects at 1200 Delaware Ave., or a Cowgill, a single attorney who lives in a Capitol Park town house complex.

Like Bresler, James Stephens, owner of Stephens Butcher Shop, places the blame for much of the mall's problems on the subway. "Metro is the only thing I have against the mall. It was promised that it would open years ago," Stephens remembered. His shop sells expensive wines and choice cuts of meat. The store saw a 25 percent increase in business when Metro cleaned up construction that blocked the front of his shop.

But that is not enough, Stephens said. He needs the commuters Metro promised to deliver and feels he could be making a lot more money if the station had opened as promised.

Metro not only did not keep its promises, but according to many, it left a lot of unsightly souvenirs. One day recently, Bresler rushed around the mall's front parking lot pointing out cracked cement, walkways that lead into ugly chain fences, the absence of handicapped ramps and the maze that confronts a driver vying for one of a scant 70 parking spaces in the mall's front lot.

Ron Zeller, manager of Harry's Liquor, Wine and Cheese, one of the few mall shops doing brisk business, put it this way: "It's still sort of a mess. We hear a lot of complaints from customers about the parking."

Some of the above-ground parking spaces in the front of the mall are taken up by the nonoperational Waterfront Metro station structure, which looks like nothing more than a concrete covered pit.

The rush for limited above-ground parking, the front shops and a new Safeway store account for the mall's busy outward appearance on a pleasant fall afternoon. But on the inside, except for the brisk lunchtime business of two fast-food stops, activity elsewhere in the mall seems slow.

For Bess Crawley, a wider variety of stores is not just a community desire, it's a solution to her problems. More stores would draw crowds that she hopes would spill over into her shop, the Waterside Beauty Salon. "If we had a big department store here that can draw a crowd -- K-Mart, Sears or maybe Zayre's -- it would be a big help and we wouldn't have to be struggling so hard."

Waterside Mall is about to open its new east wing that will add 120,000 square feet. The wing will be ready to open in 60 days but mall critics are worried that the new wing will only compound problems. Not an inch of space in the wing, most of which is office space, has been leased. Bresler said he has "prospects," however.

Many fear that the new wing, which in the past was itself a center of controversy after years of construction delays, may heighten the ghost-town atmosphere of a center where most of the stores shut down early in the evening.

"The committee asked Bresler if he'd have an opening celebration for the mall's completion, but he said no," Cowgill recalled. "I guess because there's nothing to open."