Developers of one of the largest, most valuable and most controversial tracts of vacant land in Alexandria told some of their neighbors last night to expect a new "gateway" to the city with spectacular vistas and "a distinctive skyline."

But the neighbors who attended a meeting called by the developers, Savage/Fogarty and the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac Railroad, did not appear delighted.

The multimillion-dollar project, which residents have fought for a dozen years, would be the city's northernmost development and its closest to National Airport and the District of Columbia. It still requires a special use permit from the Alexandria City Council, but denial of the permit is considered unlikely because the land is zoned for intense development.

Although the 38-acre site would have a hotel, shops, restaurants, offices, and residential buildings, it also would retain considerable open and recreation space, developers said.

"There will be spectacular riverfront sights from the residential units . . . our goal is to make a distinctive skyline," said Daniel Kenney, an architect with Sasaki Associates Inc., which is planning the project.

Michael Feld, who lives in the area and was in the audience of 40 invited by the developers, reacted by saying: "I am sick and tired of the greed. We're loaded with office buildings and nobody is even filling them . . . . We're up to here with traffic."

"I shudder when I think of it," said Lenore Van Swearingen, who has lived in Old Town Alexandria for 19 years. "Rush hour traffic is getting longer and longer and when people have to leave at 5 a.m. to get to work, life is no longer worth living."

City officials worry that development of the site, a partially swampy area between the George Washington Parkway and the RF&P railroad yard, will bring thousands more cars onto the parkway and into the city. A diamond-shaped interchange with a bridge crossing over the parkway's lanes has already been approved by the National Capital Planning Commission.

To ease the anticipated traffic, city officials are trying to persuade Metro officials and the developers to add a Metrorail stop between the stations at National Airport and Braddock Road. So far, Metro says it has other priorities and the developers say they are not ready to spend the millions a new station would cost.

Mayor James P. Moran Jr., queried about the project yesterday, said, "The GW Parkway can't handle the traffic it has now. Traffic is going to be the biggest problem."

RF&P officials said it could be a year before dimensions and costs of the project are known. Construction would likely begin in 1987, they said, and take a number of years.

Because previous proposals -- including one by Charles M. Fairchild that included a 540-unit hotel, 2,000 residential units, and 4 million square feet of office space -- caused so much neighborhood uproar in the 1970s, the new developers are hoping to defuse opposition by planning a somewhat smaller project and holding periodic community meetings.

Kenney, the planner, told the crowd last night that as much as 35 percent of the land could be reserved for parks, jogging paths and tennis courts. In total, he said: "It'll be the gateway to the city."