A coalition of civil rights and church groups, neighborhood organizations and labor unions is forming to oppose a controversial plan by the Oliver Carr Co. to buy a D.C.-owned tract downtown at a huge discount in exchange for up to $40 million in philanthropic payments over 20 years.

Members of the organization, which is expected to be announced in a few days, say they will pressure the city to get a better deal from Carr on the Gallery Place project, a planned $200 million office-hotel complex bounded by Sixth, Seventh, F and G streets NW.

The Carr company announced last summer that it wants to rejuvenate the long-stalled plans to build the project in downtown's eastern end, which has been run-down for years but is undergoing a rebirth. In 1979, the city chose a team to develop the site, but it could not raise financing. Now Carr is seeking city permission to become a major partner and financial backer.

"My personal opinion is that Mr. Carr is trying to make himself look like a benefactor when in fact he's acting like a robber baron and trying to steal the land for much less than its value," said Ron Richardson, executive secretary-treasurer of the Hotel & Restaurant Employees Union Local 25, a coalition member. "There's no reason why a multimillionaire like Mr. Carr should get land from the city for any less than he'd pay for it in the private sector."

Most city officials and competing developers find the animosity puzzling, because they see Carr as a classy developer who is often critical of city officials and who is active in community affairs. Last year Barry named him as the chairman of a new commission on the homeless.

Beyond the Gallery Place dispute, a wider debate is brewing over the city's so-called "linkage" policy, under which city officials grant concessions to some downtown developers, such as increased size for a proposed office building, in exchange for the developer's willingness to spend a few million dollars for low- and moderate-income housing elsewhere in the city.

The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 525, which is organizing downtown office janitors, says the voluntary linkage policy is too soft on developers. The union, which is coordinating its efforts with the Gallery Place coalition but is not a member, is lobbying the city not to give breaks to office developers, who the union believes are greedy opportunists.

"Developers can't be trusted to live up to the voluntary linkage plan now being proposed to finance low- and moderate-income housing in the District," said an SEIU statement. "The community should be skeptical about the good will of developers who are unwilling to provide a livable income and even minimum benefits to their janitors."

The new coalition consists of a number of veteran city activists, not all of whom speak as bluntly as the union leaders on the issue. They include the Washington Urban League, a civil rights group; the Downtown Cluster of Congregations, a group of two dozen activist churches that initially helped lead opposition to the project; two nearby advisory neighborhood commissions and several housing advocacy organizations.

In the Gallery Place project, Carr and the other partners are proposing to buy the land for $17 million, the same price for which the city agreed to sell it seven years ago, long before that neighborhood's dramatic turnaround. The city assesses the property at $57 million, and some experts have said that that figure is low. Richardson, whose coalition has retained an appraiser, said that it is worth at least $80 million.

City officials are reviewing a private consultant's study of the land's value, according to city housing chief Robert Pohlman. Public hearings on Carr's proposal will be stalled at least several weeks until developers and city officials negotiate a preliminary agreement.

Besides Carr's request for the discounted land, he also is seeking to get out of his partners' previous commitment to build housing on the site. D.C. officials are heavily pressuring developers to build housing downtown to try to keep the area vibrant. But the city administration has said that under a linkage proposal, the developer could avoid building residences at the Gallery Place site and instead construct them several blocks away.

City Planning Director Fred Greene said yesterday he mostly concurs with Carr's contention that it would be unrealistic to build a low-income housing project in the same complex with ritzy high-rent offices, such as at Gallery Place.

In exchange for a large discount on the Gallery Place land and for not having to build residences there, the Carr group is proposing the city's most ambitious linkage plan ever.

The Carr team wants to set up an independent foundation to build downtown housing or perform other needed services in the city, and provide $2 million in seed money over seven years. It also would give the foundation 10 percent of its Gallery Place profits. Carr company officials said conservative estimates are that that contribution would amount to up to $40 million over 20 years.

But members of the coalition say the city would get a better deal if, instead of Carr paying $17 million for the land and then paying $40 million to charity over 20 years, the group pays the city the full fair-market value for the land, perhaps $60 million or more, at the start.

SEIU estimated that because of inflation and other factors, Carr's proposed deal would mean that Carr would pay $20 million less, over the years, than he would if he paid market value at the start.

The Carr side says that needy city residents may be helped more by direct foundation contributions than by the larger up-front payments to the city, which may not trickle down to the needy. The developers also say that the discounted price is justified because the area, despite its potential, is an unproven and risky office market.

Until now, linkage has amounted to informal agreements between developers and various housing advocacy groups. D.C. Council member Charlene Drew Jarvis (D-Ward 4) has proposed a bill that would formalize the process by establishing a city fund to receive and dispense money contributed by developers.

But some coalition activists have said the city should consider a law such as one in San Francisco, which charges a hefty fee for construction of any office building over a certain size, regardless of whether it conforms to zoning codes.

Linkage is one of the hottest planning issues in cities that are struggling to provide needed services like housing while the federal government cuts aid to localities and cities face their own budget reductions.

Some people involved in the issue suggested that the unions are active on this issue partly as a way to embarrass their industry opponents.

They say the hotel union is targeting Carr partly because the Willard Inter-Continental Hotel, developed and coowned by Carr, is resisting that union's efforts to organize the hotel's 400 workers. Richardson denied that that is his reason for pressing the Gallery Place issue, citing instead his members' need for affordable housing.

For months, Carr representatives have been meeting with numerous community groups, including some in the coalition, to win them to the foundation concept. But the activists want to prevent any groups from endorsing it, and possibly becoming beneficiaries. The activists fear that such disunity could prevent them from getting a better deal from the developer.

Larry Weston, a representative of the Washington Urban League and longtime Democratic activist, said that the coalition will try to gather up to 50 community groups to take a unified stand.

"I believe we need housing downtown," said Rev. Jack McClendon, associate pastor of New York Avenue Presbyterian Church and a coalition activist. "We have all these office buildings and hotels, but at night we're {empty} just like another Wall Street."