A proposal to turn a little park on the edge of Howard University into a three-level parking garage for university employees won city approval last week despite opposition from some neighbors to removing the only green space within a 12-block radius of the campus.

University officials argued that a garage for 600 cars at Fifth and V streets NW is needed to meet agreements made with the city for permission to build a hospital building now under construction across Fifth Street from the park.

The garage won the backing of the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission. But it continues to anger some longtime members of the local civic association, who claim the university is reneging on a promise made nine years ago to win community support for other facilities.

"The LeDroit Park Civic Association . . . agreed to {other buildings} and to the garage they have already built across the street from the green space, but only if {the university} agreed to leave the green space there," said Isaiah Cunningham, the association president.

The issue reflects the struggle of an expanding urban university beside a changing neighborhood that views the campus as part of itself. Most ANC leaders say the university has a right to build a garage on property it owns. "That is not our green space. It is not city green space," Theresa Brown said.

But civic association leaders and others see the park, its trees and its benches as a community asset.

"It should be a park . . . it's quiet around here," said Ronald Edmunds who lives nearby. "In the summertime a lot of people from Howard come eat their lunch here, too."

Howard officials concede that they agreed to preserve the park in 1981. But they say conditions have changed and the park now is a liability. Moreover, "at no time did the university agree that the space would stay green space forever and ever," spokesman Alan Hermish said.

Within five years of the agreement with the citizens, "intensive efforts were required to keep the site free of trash and debris and to keep the site secure, as persons who posed security risks to the community were attracted to the site," Angella Ferguson, associate vice president for health affairs for Howard, testified at recent hearings on the plan. "Meanwhile, the university's need for off-street parking continued to grow."

Opponents take issue with Ferguson. "The undesirables she's talking about are the residents of LeDroit Park," said Lawrence Guyot, the ANC commissioner for the area and one of two who voted against the garage. "You're talking about a neighborhood with low-income individuals and seniors."

The garage plan was first approved in 1988, when the city agreed to a campus master plan that included it. That plan was approved by area ANC commissioners, who said they heard little opposition. When it came up again this fall, they said, they again heard no outcry.

Not so, Cunningham contended. "We have been basically fighting with the university for over a year now because of the garage that they want to build," he said. "All the citizens have told them we don't want a garage."

At a fall festival in the park, several candidates, including Jesse L. Jackson, who lives nearby, and D.C. Council members Frank Smith Jr. (D-Ward 1) and Charlene Drew Jarvis (D-Ward 4) said they supported the park, Guyot said.

"I am obviously a big believer in green space because I'm an urban planner by profession," Smith said this week. "I know the civic association feels strongly; I heard the people object to the garage. On the other hand, I always try to support my ANCs."

Smith said he told Howard University to work the issue out with the community and trusted that they had before the ANC vote.

But now even some university officials are crying foul.

"Howard has plenty of room to build a garage somewhere else," said James K. Hill, an academic programs officer who lives in LeDroit Park. He said the park is essential to the neighborhood.

"After all, just look at the name, LeDroit Park," he said. "If you take the green out of the neighborhood, it takes away with the meaning of the word 'park.' It would just be 'LeDroit.' "