The day was cold and blustery, that Saturday in November 1983. But more than 150 people gathered in the 1700 block of P Street NW for music, food and hot cider, an old-fashioned block party to celebrate a victory:

The D.C. Zoning Commission had just approved a bid by the nearby Brookings Institution to build a $25 million office and condominium complex. But the commission, just as most of the neighborhood's residents wished, had blocked the liberal think tank from constructing any offices fronting on the 1700 block of P Street, a condition designed to retain the residential character of this quiet, tree-lined enclave a block from congested Dupont Circle.

Now the neighborhood activists wonder what they were celebrating.

The Brookings Institution and its developer, the Oliver T. Carr Co., have decided that the best way to comply with the zoning commission's order is to build three two-story town houses along P Street's sidewalk directly in front of, and partly under the top six floors of an eight-story office building that would be recessed 16 to 22 feet off P Street.

"We think it's an office building in disguise and not a very good disguise at that," James McGrath, head of a citizens coalition fighting the proposal, said last week at a zoning commission public hearing to review the design. "It's an architectural fig leaf to hide an office building.

"If this case means anything," said McGrath, a research analyst at the Library of Congress, "it means that P Street should remain residential. All we expect is an architectural rendering that complies with the commission's [1983] order."

The Brookings complex would be built on an L-shaped tract on the west side and to the rear of the institution's Massachusetts Avenue headquarters. The dispute centers on one sentence in the commission's order: "All areas of the building which front on P Street NW shall be devoted to residential use."

It is a provision that Brookings says it will meet by constructing the three P Street town houses and 79 condominiums on P Street, and by designing the office complex so that workers would have to enter it on Massachusetts Avenue NW, next to the Brookings headquarters.

Neil H. Cullen, Brookings' director of administration, said the research and policy organization's plan "most definitely" meets the letter and spirit of the commission's order.

"The residential facade will be complete, running from the Avondale [cooperative apartment building on the east side of the 1 1/2-acre tract] to the National Trust for Historic Preservation" on the west side, he said.

While McGrath's Citizens Coalition Against the Proposed Brookings Office Building, a group of two dozen tenant, preservation and planning groups, has opposed the Brookings plan, the National Trust has said it is satisfied with the design and the Avondale cooperative has "strongly endorsed" it, in the words of Sally Free, head of the Avondale's committee that has studied the Brookings plan.

Cullen said Brookings "would like the income from operating this office building.

"When you have an asset like we do -- the land -- you want to make it work for you."

Cullen said the 90,000-square-foot office building would not be "economically viable" without its six floors of windows overlooking P Street.

"If you're going to pay Massachusetts Avenue rates, then you want a window," he said.

The zoning commission may decide at its April 8 meeting whether the design submitted by Brookings is acceptable.

In the meantime, lawyers for Brookings have supplied the commission with a legal brief citing cases in which judges have decided that a building "fronts" on a street when it abuts the street.

"What we did was come up with a compromise between what some of the neighborhood people want and what we could do economically," said lawyer J. Kirkwood White of the Linowes & Blocher firm, which represents Brookings.

But Paul Kaller, a lawyer working gratis for the citizens coalition, said there are legal precedents where the word "front" was interpreted more liberally. "Our opinion is that used in the context of the zoning commission's decision, 'fronting' and 'abutting' are not synonymous," he said.