In 1973, when the District won home rule, the Congress asked the new city government to lay out a comprehensive plan for development of business districts and neighborhoods in the nation's capital by 1978. But 1978 found no plan--only an incumbent mayor, Walter E. Washington, asking for a two-year postponement of the deadline, and one of Washington's challengers in the Democratic primary, Marion Barry, criticizing him for it:

"Marion Barry will not tolerate a government where city departments operate without goals," candidate Barry declared in a campaign platform paper dated July 13, 1978. "He will bring the components of planning together into a well directed system that can quickly evaluate day-to-day planning and zoning decisions within a long term, comprehensive framework." With a boost from supporters of a comprehensive plan, Barry was elected mayor.

More than three years after Barry took office, and after warnings against excuses from Congress and the General Accounting Office, the plan is still not finished. And when Barry goes back to Congress for final approval of the city's 1983 budget, city officials say, he will probably have to offer still another explanation of why the comprehensive plan is not finished. Last year, Congress gave Barry $1.2 million, including funds for eight staff positions, and told him to have the plan done by September 1982.

By then, Barry is likely to have had plenty of practice explaining the delays. Like challenger Barry in 1978, citizens groups, his opponents and some who describe themselves as former Barry supporters already are raising the absence of a comprehensive plan as an issue.

"One of the promises Marion made when he was running," says Carol Currie, head of the Citizens Planning Coalition Inc., a group that supported Barry in '78, "was that he would get the comprehensive plan done right away. He wasn't going to sit on it like Walter Washington.

"But it's been the same thing. I think he's happy to see development done on an ad-hoc basis, lot by lot. The way things are now, developers don't know where they are wanted and people who want to live in the city don't know which neighborhoods are stable, where they can make plans to settle down for 20 years and have children."

A comprehsive plan, ideally, would designate which areas of the city are best used for office buildings, where residential neighborhoods are to be protected, where business strips are to be cultivated in residential areas and where hotels, hospitals and industrial sections would be best located.

Those decisions would be based on the ability to develop transportation, water and sewer lines, recreational areas and adequate parking space, so the city could operate efficiently.

At the moment, the only barrier to helter-skelter development of office buildings, department stores, hospitals and hotels is zoning, which is done on a case-by-case basis through a board of political appointees.

Everett Scott, chairman of the Upper Northeast Coordinating Committee, also criticized the way the city has handled planning.

Developers don't want a comprehensive plan, Scott says. "They keep flim-flamming and jiving about delays but they don't want it stopping them from doing what they want to do. You can keep putting out development after development if you do it case by case, with people you appointed to the zoning board. If the developers want it and can make money from it, that's all that counts. They don't have to think about waste, sewers, transportation or what people living here want."

Barry aides tell a different story, however. They say the plan is unfinished because of delays, and not evil or illegal intent. John H. McKoy, executive director of the Office of Planning and Development, says the major obstacle to completing the comprehensive plan has been a shortage of funds and manpower.

McKoy said no money or personnel were assigned to the task until Barry requested it in the 1981 budget, the first he proposed as mayor.

"We have hired consultants and new talent to get the job done," said McKoy, "but throughout the last couple of years, you've had budget cuts slowing us down, and city planners have encountered short-range issues, like whether to keep the facade on the Keith-Albee (theater on 15th Street). Then the new census was done in '80, so we had to do new background studies on demographics, population."

When the Government Accounting Office wrote Barry to ask that the city keep to the schedule for completing the plan, Barry had City Administrator Elijah Rogers answer that the administration would "advise (the GAO) of our schedule for preparing the plan when our current reassessment of funding is completed." The GAO never got the schedule.

In his letter, Rogers also charged that the Walter Washington administration had "misused" government funds intended to pay for work on the plan, and that the management of the planning office was deficient.

McKoy contends that developing the plan was a start-from-scratch affair. But that view is not shared by Ben W. Gilbert, who was Walter Washington's planning chief. Gilbert says his office had completed part of the plan in 1977, when it submitted a goals and policies section that was approved by the City Council in 1978.

Since Gilbert left, the Barry administration has begun work on the downtown part of the plan by appointing a special downtown committee and doing an inventory of current land use throughout the city. A draft report from the committee is to be completed in May. The entire city plan, McKoy estimates, won't be done before the end of the year, and some congressional staffers and neighborhood leaders doubt it will be done even then.

"They don't know when it will be done and I don't think they really care," says Currie of the planning coalition. "They seem to think that developers are doing a pretty good job of changing the city."