In 1982, when Alexa Betts looked for space in downtown Washington to open her Child's Play day-care center, developers "were aghast at the thought of little children trooping through the hallways and elevators with lawyers from the most prestigious firms in the country," Betts said.

By 1988, when Jeanie Almo was scouting downtown for her Kid's First day-care center, a developer came to her. "They called and said they had this space," Almo recalled. "They were willing to put in this incredible amount of financing."

Kid's First opened in January in a 12-story building at 1015 K St. NW developed by the John Akridge Co. Its addition illustrates how child-care facilities have become an increasingly common marketing amenity in the multimillion-dollar office and retail complexes of developers, who are facing an area office glut and demands from local governments to provide space for day care.

As a result, facilities like the one Betts fought to open eight years ago are now operating in more than 20 commercial developments in the Washington area -- down the hall from law firms, trade associations and restaurants -- a trend that will increase the supply of child care but at prices many can't afford.

"A lot of people have difficulty finding child care. We're hoping this will be viewed as an amenity," said Daniel Karchem, vice president of the London Leeds Development Corp., which is bringing child care to Arlington's Ballston Station office and retail complex.

A child-care center is slated to open in the Oliver Carr Co.'s six-year-old Metropolitan Square building at 15th and G streets NW, and the company has proposed another facility in a mixed-use development planned in Alexandria. The company is also evaluating the feasibility of having child care in its existing facilities, according to marketing director Joanne Kaplan.

The Kaempfer Co. has leased space for the Learning Centers day-care programs in developments at 1250 24th St. and 1201 New York Ave., buildings with amenities that include a skylit atrium and underground parking.

Roger Neugebauer, publisher of the industry magazine Child Care Information Exchange, said construction of child care in corporate office parks, business districts and urban hubs has been propelled in the past four years by high vacancy rates. Office vacancy rates in the region span from 8 percent in the District to 20 percent in Fairfax and Prince George's counties.

Day care "has almost become a must," Neugebauer said. "They're looking for an edge."

In a soft real estate market that child-care consultants say has left fewer dollars available for day-care amenities, some of the interest is driven by local governments, which in places have required developers to include child care in their projects.

Two years ago, the Montgomery County Planning Board approved a $100 million retail and office mall in downtown Silver Spring that exceeded zoning density regulations. In return for waiver of the regulations, a development group that included Petrie Dierman and Partners Inc. agreed to build a day-care center nearby for 140 children.

Under the District's comprehensive plan, developers now qualify for bonus density if a project includes a child-care center.

These efforts are welcomed by child-care advocates and government officials, but they note that the cost of upscale child care in modern facilities and premium locations is often beyond what average families can pay.

Fees at such centers range from $95 to $185 a week, compared with a range of $60 to $125 at others. Day-care spaces are typically not reserved for the building's workers, and reduced rates are not available unless there is an employer subsidy.

"Developers often want the Cadillac care that clerk typists and cashiers cannot afford," said Barbara Kamara, head of the District's Office of Early Childhood Development.

In downtown Washington, there are at least 12 licensed employer-sponsored centers and 11 private programs. Child-care officials in the District and Fairfax County said there is still a shortage of quality, affordable care. Kid's First is full and not accepting applications. The Westfield Play and Learn Center in a corporate park in Fairfax is at capacity with 79 children.

Yet many centers are still trying to fill their classrooms. Child's Play in Rosslyn has 50 children enrolled in a facility licensed for 140, a situation the director attributes to lack of advertising and a media firm's unfulfilled promise to fill 90 slots.

Child-care specialists said programs can flop if they do not appeal to parents or are inconvenient, too expensive or unable to hire staff. "It can be a very expensive mistake," said Cheri Sheridan, director of the Play and Learn child-care consulting firm, which manages six centers in commercial developments in Prince George's, Fairfax and Arlington counties and Alexandria.

Developers' interest in child care is also tenant-driven. Blue Cross-Blue Shield of Maryland, for example, included child care in a list of amenities it told the Rouse Co. it wanted in the Owings Mill Corporate Park, where the company will eventually have about 3,500 employees in two buildings. "It was a major concern of ours from the beginning" of negotiations, said company spokeswoman Liz Zeimski.

"Employers want to be close to Metro. They want free parking. To be close to a major thoroughfare. And they want a day-care center," said Sheridan.

The London Leeds Development Corp., also keeping an eye toward satisfying tenants, is putting a child-care center into an eight-story office and retail complex at Ballston Station in Arlington. Because the center will not be operating when the building opens in 1992, the company is reserving spaces in nearby centers for tenant employees and may provide transportation, according to Karchem. "We feel very strongly about delivering," he said.

Bringing child care to business districts is an expensive proposition that few private centers can afford to undertake on their own. In several arrangements, developers typically lease space to day-care operators, sometimes at below-market rates, and provide other concessions.

The John Akridge Co. spent $600,000 turning commercially less desirable basement-level space into the colorful playrooms of Kid's First, according to Almo, the center director. The company also granted Kid's First an extended period of free rent while the center built up its enrollment. Through a standard retail lease agreement, Kid's First will pay back the start-up costs over the next 10 years, plus a percentage of any profits, according to Almo.

According to Akridge Vice President D. Steven Akridge, the center "gave us a somewhat better position in the marketplace."

Michelle Bussard, executive director of the D.C. Downtown Partnership, a business coalition, said starting a child-care center in the city's expensive business districts can cost at least $500,000.

"It is absolutely essential that those kinds of partnerships -- formal and informal -- are in place," Bussard said of the Kid's First-Akridge arrangement.

Betts's Child's Play center was touted as the area's first privately run, commercial child-care center in downtown when it opened in 1984 in the basement of the Solar Building at 1000 16th St. NW. It quickly became a place where professionals and corporate managers could swap toilet-training stories. Child's Play closed in May because, Betts said, she could not meet the premium costs of a downtown location -- $14,000 a month in rent -- and other operating costs solely with fees charged to parents -- almost $9,000 annually for infants.

In the meantime, Betts has opened another Child's Play in Rosslyn. Developer Stanley Weistreich put up $1 million to build the center in its office building at 1101 Wilson Blvd., Betts said. The center is licensed for 140 children.

Betts said the benefit of this arrangement is obvious: "Where would we get a million dollars and then be able to operate while we pay it back?"