A diverse group of mental health care advocates, community organization representatives and city officials squared off at a D.C. Council hearing yesterday over the impending transfer of St. Elizabeths Hospital to the District government and the proposed future uses for the bucolic, campus-like western half of the hospital grounds.

Testifying on a bill that would prohibit the District from selling any part of the grounds until enough community-based housing for "deinstitutionalized" patients is in place, witnesses at the hearing disagreed about the city's ability to assume control of the Southeast facility or to provide adequate care for patients slated to be released into the community.

And, raising another concern that has dogged the hospital transfer issue for years, witnesses and council members also disagreed on whether some of the grounds should be preserved for outpatient housing or sold for commercial development.

"I believe that the goal and timetables outlined in the {transfer} plan are unrealistically optimistic," said council member Betty Ann Kane (D-At Large), sponsor of the bill, who wants to retain all hospital property until the council sees how the transfer is working.

But Wilhelmina Rolark (D-Ward 8), whose district includes St. Elizabeths, said the community abutting the hospital needs the kind of commercial development that will enhance the economy of the area.

"The ward has been at the bottom for so long," said Rolark, who noted that the so-called west campus of the hospital -- with its sweeping view of the city -- could attract quality development along adjacent Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE.

The hospital offically shifts from federal to District hands on Oct. 1, but the facility's west campus won't become District property until the end of the decade.

St. Elizabeths now has a population of 1,475 and serves an additional 721 outpatients, according to District officials. The inpatient caseload is expected to be reduced to about 800 over the next four years.

Testifying yesterday, Robert A. Washington, commissioner-designate for the city's Commission on Mental Health Services, sought to allay community fears that patients will be released and become part of the burgeoning homeless population.

"We are not discharging into the street," said Washington. But he stressed, along with other mental health and community witnesses, that the most pressing challenge facing the District will be the need to find and develop affordable community-based housing for a broad spectrum of discharged patients.

Heidi Thornlow, executive director of the Mental Health Coalition, a group of private treatment facilities, said Kane's bill might violate patients' constitutional rights by confining some of them against their will or requiring them to live in a certain place. She said a special mayoral task force now studying suggested uses for the west campus should be allowed to complete its work.

But, Barbara Bick, representing Friends of St. Elizabeths, said her group sees the legislation as a way "to keep St. Elizabeths' west campus as a resource to meet the needs of the many as opposed to giving it away to provide profits for the few."