Richard Wilt was stressed out. His three children squiggling in the back seat of his Plymouth Grand Voyager were getting crabby, too. He was hunting for that elusive square of concrete: a parking space. He circled the lots near the monuments and begged the parking attendants at the subterranean garages downtown.

Trying to get to work several blocks away, Donna Behar knew how he felt. If she arrives at her job past 10 a.m., she won't find parking.

"There's just nowhere this time of day," she said, standing on the corner of 15th and L streets NW. "I have to get here by 8 a.m. to get a space in the garage."

At 11:30 in the morning in downtown Washington, parking is almost as hard as snagging a taxi near the Mall after July Fourth fireworks.

On 18th near K Street, a garage has a sign that says it is full. Near the Washington Monument, a lot is packed, with cars queuing up for a space. Over at the Ronald Reagan Federal Building and International Trade Center, on Pennsylvania Avenue, spots are such a precious commodity that parking attendants have to pay to secure space.

"Having parking was always the one benefit of being a parking attendant," said Solomon Lemma, who works in the 1,950-spot garage under the Reagan building. "We thought, 'What's going on?' "

City officials realize parking is a challenge, said Douglas J. Patton, deputy mayor for planning and economic development.

"It's been an ongoing problem, and it's not only a problem downtown," Patton said. "It's good news, bad news. We are growing and developing. But you have to grow smart. People are coming back to the District, but they do need a place to park."

A task force is scheduled to give Patton a report next month about transportation and parking in the District, he said. The city also recently hired Andy Altman, the former director of planning for Oakland, Calif., to focus on transportation and parking, Patton said.

Ask people about the state of parking downtown, and there are plenty of interpretations.

Richard Bradley, executive director of the Downtown D.C. Business Improvement District, said that what's happening is a temporary shortage caused by the closing of five surface lots in the last two years. Industry experts say that's a loss of at least 400 slots.

The lots are the latest victims of the city's flurry of construction and development, which is turning once bountiful rows of parking into office and retail centers. Many of these lots will be replaced with more parking within the year, according to Bradley's organization, but commuters and tourists are scrambling this summer to find spaces.

"The good news is that it's not long term and that more people are coming downtown," Bradley said.

In a March survey, the Business Improvement District estimated there were 25,000 parking spaces in its 110-block area of downtown, bordered by 16th Street, Massachusetts Avenue, Third Street and Constitution Avenue NW. The survey also found 89 percent of people questioned found it easy to get downtown. Once there, however, 74 percent found it difficult to find parking.

In response, the Business Improvement District put out a color-coded map listing 120 lots. The problem, Bradley says, is mainly during the week from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., when there is heavy traffic downtown. While Bradley always encourages people to take the Metro, he says he doesn't see a long-term parking shortage.

But critics of District planning see the issue as a never-ending urban problem that has plagued many cities across the country. The trouble with the District is that it never has had a comprehensive design plan, said Dorn McGrath, professor of urban planning and development at George Washington University.

"This is not a grown-up city," said McGrath, who has studied parking in the District. "Planning is not D.C.'s strong suit. They don't have a plan at all. They have a bunch of deals, and that's how they figure everything out. What they urgently need is a plan." When MCI Center was discussed, McGrath warned the city it needed a long-term plan.

He criticized the District's failed proposal to build a $290 million, 7,200-space parking garage and transportation depot east of Mount Vernon Square between New York and Massachusetts avenues NW--which he called "a monstrosity."

Last month, Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) backed away from the proposal, which would have put the depot under a proposed major league baseball stadium. Williams cited intense opposition from neighbors and environmentalists who feared that thousands of cars heading to the depot each day would clog city streets and pollute the air.

Others argue that the problem is not a shortage of parking but the extreme reliance by commuters and visitors on their cars. The solution, some say, is for more people to take public transportation.

"The money should be spent on parking garages at the Metros in Maryland and Virginia," said Tersh Boasberg, chairman of the Committee of 100 on the Federal City.

Phillip Carr, head of the Washington Parking Association, a group of private parking operators, said there is ample parking and that there will be even more, because many construction projects plan on adding three or four times the number of parking spaces that used to be at the same sites. Gallery Place, for example, will replace 150 spaces with more than 900, he said. He also said parking lots are always nearby, even if drivers have to park and walk a few blocks to their destination.

That idea did not console Wilt. After more than a half-hour of driving around the city, the tourist from Pittsburgh and his three children considered parking blocks from downtown.

"The kids say their feet hurt from walking," Wilt said. "But there's nothing else we can do."

CAPTION: James Reeves, left, talks with colleague Roosevelt Powell at a downtown Colonial Parking garage. Their lot is full by 12:30 p.m. each weekday.