The Southeast Federal Center, the largest unused piece of federal property in the District, would be turned over to a private developer who would build offices, shops and restaurants under a proposal to be announced today.

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) said she will introduce legislation in Congress aimed at speeding up the redevelopment of the 55-acre parcel by creating a public-private partnership in which the federal government would keep ownership of the land but make it available to a private developer. Such an arrangement would be unprecedented for the federal government.

Although the center--along the Anacostia River near the Washington Navy Yard--has been planned for decades as a mixture of 6 million square feet of federal offices and retail, no federal agency has agreed to relocate there, in part because the site is somewhat remote, even with a Metro station nearby. The federal Department of Transportation still is considering the site for its new headquarters.

Norton and General Services Administration officials said the winning developer, chosen competitively, would not necessarily be required to build federal offices there. The bill gives the GSA--the agency that acts as the federal government's landlord--wide latitude to enter into any agreement to bring "appropriate" development to the site, whether it involves private uses, government offices or some combination.

"We don't have any preconceived notions about what could happen," said Robert A. Peck, commissioner of the GSA's public buildings service.

Federal law prohibits U.S. government property from being used for non-federal purposes. Norton plans to introduce a bill today with Rep. Bob Franks (R-N.J.) that would set up a public-private partnership under which the GSA would lease the land to a private developer, who could put up the money the federal government has lacked for redevelopment.

In recent years, the federal government's investment in the property has amounted largely to spending $30 million on an environmental cleanup.

"The approach is mutually beneficial," Norton said. "The federal government makes its property available for development and revenue-producing occupancy, and the developer, selected competitively, receives a valuable opportunity."

Franks's support is crucial because the proposal probably can't move through Congress without backing from a Republican leader. A spokeswoman for Franks confirmed his interest in the legislation.

Franks, chairman of the subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings, Hazardous Materials and Pipeline Transportation, has toured the site, about a half-mile from the Capitol.

Norton said she was motivated by her frustration over the federal government's failure to move quickly in resolving the site's future.

Instead of using the land to house federal agencies, she said, the federal government continues to waste money by renting office space in other buildings across the region.

Since her election in 1990, Norton has said the Southeast Federal Center represents a huge opportunity to boost the District's economy. "The District would gain immeasurably," she said yesterday.

The GSA's Peck added: "This represents a great opportunity for the GSA and the city because it would give us a lot of additional tools to make a lively development happen at the Southeast Federal Center."

Mayor Anthony A. Williams's administration, which has aggressively promoted the development potential of long-neglected areas along Washington's waterfronts, reacted favorably to the plan.

Eric Price, the newly appointed deputy mayor for planning and economic development, said that Norton's plan is being reviewed but added that "any development tools that can be brought to bear" on waterfront redevelopment would be desirable.

D.C. Council member Sharon Ambrose (D-Ward 6) said she hoped the eventual redevelopment would include housing. "The most wonderful thing would be to have a real mixed use there," she said.

CAPTION: D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes wants SE Federal Center developed.