From the debris-filled, oil-slicked shoreline of the Anacostia River to an abandoned, muddy rail yard near Union Station, land in the District that no one has wanted to touch for decades is suddenly attractive.

The appeal of these forsaken parcels reflects just how much a soaring economy has refocused developers' attention on the District, a city that five years ago bordered on bankruptcy but now has a broadening employment base and a skyline dotted with construction cranes.

Following the lead of cities such as Cleveland, Bridgeport, Conn., and Baltimore, the District is teaming up with developers and the federal government to try to extend the building boom beyond the downtown area and into the city's blighted industrial corridors.

Mayor Anthony A. Williams, aiming to strike while the economy is hot, is about to send the D.C. Council legislation that would create tax incentives and liability protection for developers who help clean up polluted sites and then build on them. Nearly a dozen proposals for office buildings, hotels and restaurants along the Anacostia River and New York Avenue already have surfaced.

"The city has a real opportunity to reverse the decline in jobs and residents," Williams (D) said of the exodus that dropped the District's population from 638,333 in 1980 to 523,124 last year. "You turn these [industrial sites] from anchors driving the city down, to locomotives pulling it up."

Many of the old industrial sites eyed for redevelopment in the District are known as "brownfields," vacant land that may contain oil, fuel, chemicals and other substances but which likely can be cleaned up--or at least made safe for reuse--without a massive investment. Unlike more seriously polluted hazardous waste sites where cleanups are required by federal law, brownfields may sit untouched for years.

But building on brownfields has been difficult in past years because banks regularly rejected developers' requests for loans, fearful that environmental questions might result in failed projects. In the Washington area--and elsewhere across the nation--that has helped encourage development in outer suburbs, which have attracted most of the job growth in the 1990s.

By offering developers liability protection and financial incentives, cities have learned they can entice investment in long-dormant industrial sites.

"It is just common sense," Carol M. Browner, administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, said of the push to reuse abandoned industrial sites nationwide. "You already have these locations with all city services--the electrical and water lines, the roads and other infrastructure--and they are sitting idle."

The District has never been a major industrial center, but for years several neighborhoods--mostly in Wards 5, 7 and 8--were home to rail yards, munitions factories, power plants, junkyards, refineries, warehouses and small manufacturing operations.

The D.C. government has cast itself as something of a guinea pig in the effort to restore brownfields here. It has compiled a list of city-owned industrial sites that it suspects are contaminated and is beginning to investigate ways to clean them up and put them back into use.

The list features a half-dozen city properties that include the Department of Public Works road salt and truck storage area at 119 New York Ave. NE; the Brentwood car impoundment lot at 1060 Brentwood Rd. NE; and D.C. Village, the defunct nursing home on the southwestern tip of the city.

The environmental problems at these sites are diverse--gasoline, antifreeze and other automobile byproducts have leached into the ground at the Brentwood lot, while part of D.C. Village is a former landfill and junkyard--but none is so severely contaminated that it is considered a hazard, city officials said. Believing the properties' values could rise dramatically with modest cleanups, officials are looking for alternative uses.

The federal government, for example, is considering building a 1,000-employee headquarters for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms at the Public Works site on New York Avenue, which would be cleared of city equipment and pockets of contaminated soil before the construction would start. Other proposals have been submitted for the Brentwood impoundment lot, although city officials would not discuss them.

Nearby, CSX Corp. is sucking oil-contaminated ground water out of a seven-acre site at First and N streets NE, which was a home-heating fuel depot from about 1840 until the middle of this century.

CSX had about 20 bids from developers interested in the land--which is zoned for an office building--and a contract has been signed with one of the bidders, although CSX would not identify the firm. A Metro station is planned nearby at New York and Florida avenues, and two old warehouses there are being converted into new commercial space, possibly for high-tech firms.

"Five years ago, it would have been tough to do this," CSX Assistant Vice President Bill Cromwell said of his company's reclamation effort. "There seems to be a real interest in getting it going now. . . . We are very encouraged."

Along the Anacostia River--home to a rusty, junk-filled industrial corridor--developers are rolling out one ambitious rebuilding plan after another.

The area is home to the Washington Navy Yard, a 67-acre complex at 1014 N St. SE that has been used by the military since 1799 and is undergoing a $200 million make over. By 2001, 6,000 mostly white-collar Navy employees will move into the facility, increasing the overall staff at the site to about 11,000. Contamination at the yard was severe enough--cancer-causing PCBs, lead, dioxins and other materials--that the EPA ordered a federal cleanup.

The Navy's promise to relocate so many workers to the Anacostia waterfront--just eight blocks from the Capitol--is inspiring the surge in building plans at neighboring sites, many of which are considered brownfields. Washington Gas, for example, owns a 12-acre site near the Navy Yard where for a century the company converted coal and oil into gas.

Over the past two decades, Washington Gas gradually has been extracting and cleaning contaminated ground water, and it recently reached an agreement with the federal government for additional work necessary before the land could be reused.

Starting this spring, pending city approval, a developer picked by Washington Gas intends to begin building a project that ultimately will feature four office buildings and an eight-story hotel.

"It does not do our ratepayers or our shareholders much good to write a site like this off," said company spokesman Tim Sargeant.

The Earth Conservation Corps, a nonprofit group that hires disadvantaged youths to help do environmental cleanups, has been a pioneer in the Anacostia waterfront area, converting a former water pumping station near the Navy Yard into a small office. The group also plans to create classrooms in what is now an abandoned, lead-tainted Potomac Electric Power Co. building at nearby Buzzard Point. Thousands of pounds of trash, tires and other junk have been removed from the Anacostia River shoreline, and a riverside walking path is planned.

Florida Rock Properties has proposed a 180-unit apartment complex and 1.5 million square feet of office space at Potomac Avenue and South Capitol Street; the complex would replace the Jacksonville firm's gravel and concrete distribution yard.

Florida Rock's six acres and the adjacent 55-acre Southeast Federal Center, another federally owned former industrial site, are possible locations for new headquarters for the Department of Transportation, which may move from its building at 400 Seventh St. SW after its lease expires next year. The Florida Properties land does not appear to have contaminants that need to be removed; meanwhile, cleanup is about done at the Southeast Federal Center, formerly part of the Navy Yard.

Much of the action on these industrial sites--from the Anacostia to the New York Avenue corridor--remains speculative. Near the Navy Yard in particular, predictions of a pending boom have come and gone several times during the past two decades.

But city officials say they are confident that at least some of the current proposals will move beyond mere discussion. The U.S. government has committed about $2 million and may give the city another $2 million in grants or technical assistance to help the District hire a brownfields staff, handle permits for such tracts and set up a loan fund to help developers pay for part of the cleanup.

Bridgeport, Birmingham, Ala., Baltimore, Chicago, Dallas, Lowell, Mass., Trenton, N.J., and Stamford, Conn., are among the many cities nationwide that in recent years have helped convert brownfields into useful land.

In Bridgeport, a minor league baseball team now plays at a 5,500-seat park on the site of an old valve manufacturing plant. In Philadelphia, an oil and antifreeze recycling center--shut down after a large oil spill in 1989--has been replaced by a food distributor. And in Buffalo, an old steel plant is now an indoor tomato farm.

Evans Paull, director of Baltimore's brownfields program, said about 1,000 people work in businesses set up on former "industrial slums" in the city, such as the Highland Marine Terminal in East Baltimore, where about 250 people work in new warehouses and light manufacturing companies that have opened after a $1 million cleanup of the site.

"With a modest investment . . . the city has reaped tremendous rewards," said Paull, noting that about 15 other such projects are planned or underway there.

The EPA's Browner hopes to see similar progress here.

"Each city needs to make its own decision about when is the right time," she said. "For the District, there is tremendous potential right now."

Reclaiming D.C. Land

As the District's real-estate market booms, the city and federal governments are trying to persuade developers to build offices, hotels, restaurants, housing and other improvements on vacant, contaminated industrial sites, known as brownfields. Some of the property is owned by the government, other pieces are in private hands. Below are some of the industrial sites being considered for redevelopment.

1060 Brentwood Rd. NE: A 14.5-acre site, known as the Brentwood impoundment lot, where cars towed by the city are stored. The city is considering using the lot for a commercial purpose.

119 New York Ave. and 151 O St. NE: About seven acres currently used by the Department of Public Works as a storage site and truck depot. It is being considered for the new headquarters for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

First and N streets NE: A seven-acre CSX Corp. site that once served as a home-heating fuel depot. An office building may be built there.

Southeast Federal Center: A 55-acre plot west of the Navy Yard, where the federal government is completing an environmental cleanup and considering options for possible tenants. There is a proposal in Congress to have a private developer do the project.

Washington Navy Yard: A 67-acre complex that once served as a ship repair yard and munitions factory. This site has severe contamination and must be cleaned up. It will be converted into office space for the Navy.

A 12-acre Washington Gas site: East of where the 11th Street Bridge crosses the Anacostia River. A developer selected by the utility is planning to replace a former gas manufacting plant with a five-part project that features four office buildings and an eight-story hotel.

Water Pumping Station: Already converted into a small office building by the Earth Conservation Corps. The Conservation Corps also plans to renovate a second riverside building that previously served as a Pepco river water filtration station at Buzzard Point.

God's Dump: A 4.7-acre, privately owned landfill being considered for cleanup and other commercial uses.

South Capitol Street at Southern Avenue:

About 99 acres, part of which was a landfill, that once was owned by the federal government. It could be used for commercial development, if the city meets certain federal requirements.

D.C. Village: A 240-acre campus at the southwestern tip of the city that once was a landfill, a nursing home and a car impoundment lot. About 50 acres are being considered for reuse.

SOURCES: D.C. government, local companies and the federal government