Jeffrey N. Cohen's ambitious effort to revitalize the 14th and U streets neighborhood in Northwest came to a close this week, as the developer and his wife, Francine, succumbed to a mounting pile of debts and filed for personal bankruptcy protection.

Cohen had staked much of his personal fortune on a massive $250 million development project in Shaw, where he planned to build more than 1,000 apartments, offices and stores in a stretch near downtown Washington that has never recovered from the 1968 riots.

He also became known for his close personal relationship with former mayor Marion Barry. Cohen was one of the first city businessmen to back Barry in his 1978 mayoral bid, became godfather to Barry's son, Christopher, and invested with Barry in property on Nantucket, Mass.

The D.C. government was one of Cohen's major creditors. It advanced Cohen nearly $12 million to help rescue him from creditors in the early 1980s. The city is now owed about $15 million from Cohen and the community group that was his partner in the deal, city officials said.

The city recently found the project to be in default and has instituted proceedings to terminate its lease with Cohen and the community group. Alternative plans for the property have yet to be announced.

Despite the city assistance, Cohen was never able to obtain permanent bank financing for the project, and became embroiled in numerous disputes with the Shaw community over the size, composition and control of the project.

Unlike many other developers, Cohen and his wife signed personal guarantees to repay many of the loans advanced during the years to finance the Shaw project -- known as Samuel Jackson Plaza -- and other projects.

With no ready source of income to pay back his lenders and faced with a depressed real estate market, Cohen's financial position has been eroding rapidly during the last two years. Last fall, he was forced to sell his prized $2 million Victorian-style home in Cleveland Park to stave off creditors.

"We held on as long as we could," Cohen said yesterday. "We tried the best we could, and that wasn't good enough. It is time to start a new chapter in our lives."

In papers filed with the U.S. Bankruptcy Court this week, Cohen and his wife listed 186 separate creditors and assets of $100,000 to $499,000. He said his liabilities exceeded $1 million, although they are believed to be well in excess of that figure.

At least three other Cohen real estate partnerships, including the one that has been developing in Shaw, already have filed for bankruptcy.

Many of the partnerships' creditors, such as Sovran/DC National Bank and Goldome savings bank, also are listed as creditors of Cohen's individually.

Cohen will be required to file more complete financial information in the weeks ahead. Rather than file under Chapter 11 of the federal bankruptcy code, the Cohens filed under Chapter 7, which means that a trustee will be appointed to liquidate the family's assets and pay off creditors.

A charismatic, outspoken figure, Cohen cut a controversial path in Shaw. Some considered him a visionary who was willing to tackle the difficult issues of inner-city redevelopment while other developers built office buildings along K Street.

He also was credited by some community activists with instituting an unusual partnership, promising the Shaw Coalition Redevelopment Corp. half the profits from the development and granting its leaders a major say in how the project was to be developed.

Yet other activists saw Cohen in a far different light -- a developer who sought to capitalize on his connections with Barry and the city government, rather than develop an economically feasible proposal.

Some complained that Cohen treated the redevelopment corporation as little more than a rubber stamp and a means for obtaining assistance from the city, rather than as a true partner.

Those divisions continue to this day.

Jeff Koenreich, a Shaw activist, still suspects Cohen's motives. He said Cohen is continuing to collect rents from some business tenants near 14th and U streets NW, but has failed to pay the utility bills.

"I'm suspicious that this {bankruptcy} is an attempt to carve out what he can for himself while leaving a lot of other people in the lurch," he said.

Ibrahim Mumin, former executive director of the redevelopment corporation and a onetime ally of Cohen's, said he felt great sadness about the bankruptcy.

"I suspect that there will be some people who will rejoice, but that's not a feeling I share," Mumin said. "I feel sad for Jeff and Fran, and I hope they recover from this. They put a lot of time, money and energy into a project that even today a lot of developers consider risky. There weren't a lot of people who were waiting in the wings."