A team headed by developers Theodore N. Lerner and Melvin Lenkin and another led by the Georgetown-based Western Development Co. have emerged as early front-runners in the competition for development of the coveted District-owned Portal Site in Southwest Washington.

The five-member board of the city's urban renewal agency will choose the winner from among five competing groups of developers and other businessmen in early February without a recommendation from its staff.

"It's my feeling that the board will stop short of asking the staff for a final recommendation," said lawyer Nira Long, chairman of the Redevelopment Land Agency. "The board seems inclined to go with absorbing and mastering this on their own," she said. Other board members confirmed that there would be no staff recommendation on the selection.

The board broke with the long-held tradition of acting on staff recommendations two years ago when it sold another coveted downtown site, Gallery Place at Seventh and G streets NW. Some RLA critics say the practice of selecting a developer to buy and develop choice city land tends to subject the board to increased political maneuvering and pressure by competing developers.

While two of the five developers vying for the Portal Site appear to be front-runners at the moment, RLA officials note that there is still further study to be done and the situation could change.

The two top contenders have emerged from the board's discussions of only two of six criteria that will be used to select the developer for the 10-acre tract, the last and largest undeveloped parcel in the city's Southwest renewal area. The two criteria are economic return for the city and development design.

It was learned that the Lerner/Lenkin team, called Banneker Associates, earned early points because it said it could finish its proposed complex of seven high-rise office buildings and a 434-room hotel in three years. Other teams said their developments would be built in phases spanning seven years.

Some board members were also impressed with Banneker assurances that it had commitments from five organizations, such as the Urban Institute, the American Enterprise Institute and COMSAT, to rent most of the proposed 1.8 million square feet of office space.

The three-year completion schedule means more taxes would start flowing into the city's coffers sooner. The Banneker proposal would also generate more revenue than the competing proposals--$13.4 million a year, according to a confidential economic analysis prepared by a private consulting firm, Hammer, Siler, George Associates, for the RLA.

This tax yield estimate rests largely on a Banneker assertion that it would pay the city $45 million for the land, a higher price than those offered by other developers, the analysis said.

The final price of the site will be determined by two independent appraisals and negotiations between RLA and the developers..

Although the Banneker proposal might bring in the most taxes, it would result in fewer jobs than one of the other proposals. A proposal from a team headed by developer Conrad Cafritz would generate the most jobs--9,922--while the Bannker proposal would provide 8,732. It is unclear how many of the jobs would be new employment and how many would simply be job transfers from other parts of the city. It is also unclear how many of the new jobs would go to District residents, the consultants said.

The other criterion discussed so far by RLA is design. The Western Development proposal won high marks for its design of a complex of four large curved buildings with rounded pavillions at the corners and a huge decorative arch on the Potomac waterfront framing a tiny carousel.

A wide brick plaza with a map of Washington inlaid in the center would cut between the office buildings diagonally and cover the Conrail railroad tracks that now split the site. The project was designed by award-winning architect Arthur Cotton Moore.

The board's own architectural review panel, composed of five architects, could not reach unanimous agreement, but three panel members favored the proposal submitted by the Channel Place development team, a Rockefeller family enterprise, as the best design, according to the RLA's confidential reports. Even so, at least two of the five RLA members are known to favor the Western Development design.

The designs by Western and Cafritz warranted only "further consideration," the architectural panel said, but the panel was unanimous in dismissing the designs by Banneker and Portal Associates, a team headed by D.C. parking magnate Dominic F. Antonelli.

Other criteria the board must use in judging the five proposals are the extent of community and minority participation, each team's experience in building large office complexes, the ability of each developer to finance the project (the proposed costs range from $265 to $335 million) and conformity to the Southwest urban renewal plan.

RLA's decision to postpone the selection twice and move the announcement date to February has caused concern among the developers because of the heightened political atmosphere that will exist in 1982, an election year.

D.C. Mayor Marion Barry has said he will announce his candidacy for reelection some time after January. All five development teams are populated with Barry friends and political supporters and some development group members, who declined to be identified, have said that the mayor has already talked to them about endorsements and financial support.

The Banneker team, naming itself after Benjamin Banneker, the black architect who helped Pierre L'Enfant plan the Nation's Capital, includes realtor Flaxie Pinkett, one of the most respected businesswomen in the District, and a friend to former mayor Walter E. Washington. Other Banneker team members include Manuel Fernandez, owner of the Channel Inn restaurant and hotel, and James and Cilla Adkins, owners of the O Street Market.

The Western Development team, known as Portal Development Associates, has the largest number of Barry supporters, including C&P Telephone Co. executive Delano Lewis, who headed the mayor's transition team three years ago; John Clyburn, a college buddy of City Administrator Elijah B. Rogers; consultant Marie Barksdale, a member of the mayor-appointed convention center board, and its attorney, David Wilmot.

Peggy Cooper, Conrad Cafritz's wife, is an active Barry supporter and chairman of the city's commission on the arts. Lawyer James Hudson, a member of the Rockefeller Channel Place team, has been long active in Democratic politics and supported Barry, while Charlotte Chapman, a member of Antonelli's Portal Associates group, was first a strong supporter of former mayor Washington but has now become a Barry convert.