One very important item was missing from the Jan. 3 Metro section article on Chinatown -- the fact that a large portion of Chinatown is part of the city's downtown historic district. The district was established under the D.C. preservation law to save historic structures in parts of the "old downtown," mainly along F and 7th streets and adjacent blocks. Proposals for altering or razing buildings in the district must be approved by the city's Historic Preservation Review Board.

The failure to mention the district -- and the article's apparent assumption that Chinatown's stock of small old buildings will be swept away by new development -- are telling. Evidently the historic district remains unknown to many people. To those who do know it exists -- including developers and city officials -- too many cynically assume it is simply another minor irritant to be overcome in the development process, like zoning variances.

But for Chinatown to survive, it will take more than huge new buildings with "Chinese" stone lions, curved roofs and the like, and more than a streetscape of lanterns, inlaid sidewalks and Metro signs trumpeting "Chinatown."

Survival will require a very careful splicing of the new onto the old. It will require developers and officials to wipe the gold dust from their eyes long enough to think creatively -- and to make some difficult decisions, such as respecting historic architecture, modifying zoning to reduce densities and preventing office uses from driving out restaurants, housing, cultural institutions and everything else that makes an area lively, humane and appealing.

ARNOLD BERKE

Washington