It was a classic Southwest Washington moment: A group of politicians, developers and residents were admiring the beauty and bustle of the waterfront from the heights of Benjamin Banneker Park when they rashly attempted to approach the water itself.

Wingtips and heels slipped and slid down the steep, grassy hill, past the thicket where the colony of feral butterscotch-colored cats live. Nobody tumbled, and finally they reached the sidewalk of Maine Avenue--where they confronted six lanes of speeding traffic.

Richard Westbrook, tour guide and advisory neighborhood commissioner, knew better than to lead a sprint across the street. He took the group into the tunnel under the Eisenhower Freeway, where everyone squeezed onto a narrow sidewalk and stopped talking because no one could hear above the traffic noise. On the other side of the tunnel, there were only four lanes to cross. At last, between the concrete pillars of the Case Bridge, they drew close to the Washington Channel.

A motto for Southwest: You can't get there from here.

The tour Thursday was part of a series of recent events bringing renewed attention to the quirky neighborhood in the hope that the economic renaissance in some parts of the city will spread to Southwest and help cure its self-defeating idiosyncrasies.

"The waterfront is a great neglected resource for Washington," D.C. Planning Director Andrew Altman said during a forum Friday with Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) and D.C. Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) that attracted about 150 people to Arena Stage in Southwest. "We've been cut off from our waterfront in many ways."

Those who have studied the area are confounded at how the best-planned quadrant of Washington--the fruit of 1960s-style urban renewal--has yielded perhaps the most underachieving big-city waterfront in the country.

A lesson for urban planners is that the most vibrant and exciting spot in Southwest is the one that escaped planning--the Maine Avenue fish wharf, where the fried fish sandwiches and piles of fresh seafood on ice are being sold much as they have been for 200 years.

But again, in classic Southwest fashion--that is, without much rational explanation--the fish vendors have each been paying the city about $300 a month in rent for operations that together gross more than $10 million in annual sales, according to city estimates. As if in punishment for the sweet deal, the city has withheld stable leases from the vendors and allowed the wharf and the adjacent Washington Marina to fall into disrepair.

Such Southwest strangeness is all around. Rather than continuing on to East Potomac Park, the promenade between the row of restaurants and the channel abruptly ends at the parking lot for the Capitol Yacht Club and the trash bins for the fish vendors. Joggers dodge cars and garbage and weave through crowds at the wharf.

Hundreds of people are drawn there at lunchtime to sample some of the best crab cakes in town, plus fresh oysters, spicy shrimp and fried fish. Once they have their white foam trays . . . there's no place to eat. Diners can be seen sitting on the pavement. Such is the rough appeal of the place that they come back anyway.

The restaurants are a barrier, unless you're inside one. "The best view is coming in from Virginia. You say, 'Oh, what a beautiful waterfront,' " says resident and community developer Marc Weiss. "When you're on Maine Avenue, you don't even know it's there."

Then there are the studies. This decade, at least three studies have been written about what to do with Southwest. But something about Southwest resists action. The latest was the much ballyhooed Urban Land Institute study last year, which called for creating a Southwest development corporation, converting the Waterside Mall into an old-fashioned town center and adding commercial vigor to Water Street. Nothing recommended has been done.

But things may be starting to happen in Southwest, given the evidence of the past week.

On the wharf, the city is close to signing 30-year leases with one of the main fish vendors, as well as the operator of the fish-cleaning house and the Washington Marina. The rent will reflect the market value of the property, said Bob Jones, who is negotiating for the city. He would not disclose the terms until the deals are signed. The leases need the approval of the mayor and D.C. Council.

For Billy White, co-owner of Capt. White's Seafood, who started working for his late father, Bronzie White, on the wharf 30 years ago, the lease means he can plan for a future when his children might take over the business. He can also invest in improvements. He remains puzzled and a little bitter over why the city wouldn't accept his offer to pay higher rent over the past eight years.

"I think the city just never focused on it," Jones said.

The fish sellers point out that their shared expenses are huge--about $400,000 a year--so the leases were never quite the bargain they appeared to be. Still, where else can you meet your rent by selling a couple of filets a day?

The city also has signed work orders for $3.8 million in repairs on the wharf and the marina, to be completed by June 2001 by the Army Corps of Engineers. The work will include repair of piers and seawalls, preservation and renovation of the historic fish-cleaning house, new restrooms, repaving and improved utilities. At the marina, rotting boat slips and docks will be replaced. (Other marinas on the waterfront are not in such disrepair.)

Not everyone is happy on the wharf. The plans call for evicting Peyton Barton and demolishing his Maine Avenue Seafood, the only fish business on dry land, to make way for the new restrooms. Barton said he will fight eviction in court.

Off the waterfront, construction of 93 new town houses has just begun at Seventh and G streets SW. The developers have been stunned by the response. Forty of the units are already sold. The average price has jumped from $270,000 to $300,000. It's a sign that Southwest is sharing in the real estate boom of some other neighborhoods. "We keep raising the price to slow down sales," joked developer Robert D. Youngentob, "and we're not able to do it."

L'Enfant Promenade still resembles the more architecturally chilly sections of the former East Berlin, but the owner of the plaza buildings is undertaking a $6 million project to make the central courtyard more park-like. And the city has identified $750,000 in federal money for a study on how to make the promenade more welcoming to people, with benches and landscaping. If some of the millions of tourists who visit the Smithsonian Castle could be lured across Independence Avenue and down the promenade, it would be a boon for commerce in Southwest.

Advocates for a sculpted bust of Benjamin Banneker, the African American scientist who helped survey the District, have received approval to place the monument on the promenade and are raising money for the statue, according to Peggy C. Seats, leader of the effort.

Seats would also like to see a pedestrian bridge from Banneker Park to the waterfront, spanning Main Avenue. This would remove the need to scramble down the hill and dodge cars. The L'Enfant Plaza Metro station, not the Waterfront station, is the closest to much of the waterfront, and the path worn into the grass on the hill is testimony to the many who use the route.

The developers of the 400-room luxury Mandarin Hotel at the foot of 14th Street SW say they will move ahead if the city approves a subsidy like one just granted to the Gallery Place project in Chinatown. Evans said he will support the plan because the hotel would add crucial vitality to the neighborhood.

The deal would require the developers to help renovate a railroad trestle into a pedestrian bridge across Maine Avenue--a gateway for tourists on the Mall.

A cloud in all the daydreams is the fate of the Waterside Mall. The Environmental Protection Agency is in the process of moving nearly 4,000 employees from the twin towers, a crushing blow to the mall. The landlord says he has not found a replacement. At last week's meeting, Williams said a District agency could move there, but there are no firm plans.

Despite the unsolved problems, "we are really at the beginning of a renaissance for Southwest," Westbrook told the tour before they descended the hill. "Keep in mind that you were here today as something to tell your grandchildren."

CAPTION: Under District renovation plans, Peyton Barton's Maine Avenue Seafood will be demolished to make way for new restrooms at the fish wharf in Southwest. Barton says he will fight the eviction order in court.

CAPTION: A woman buys fish from a worker at Jessie Taylor Seafood. A push to revamp the waterfront fish wharf will likely mean improvements--and higher rents--for vendors.

CAPTION: A worker straightens fish on display at a waterfront seafood market. The city has allowed the wharf and adjacent Washington Marina to fall into disrepair.