A vital downtown is in the best interest of the city and arguably the metropolitan area. On that we can all agree. But what is not so readily apparent is the best course of action. The plan before the Zoning Commission would mandate housing downtown without providing incentives for affordable neighborhood housing.

It is important to be clear here: a new framework to guide the emergence of arts, cultural, shopping and historic districts will be adopted. At issue is the amount of housing required by zoning decree. Housing for whom and at what cost?

The stakes are high. One analysis suggests that if the most recent proposal for downtown is adopted, property in the area will be devalued by $150 million to $200 million. The impact of such devaluation on municipal revenues would be disastrous. It's also been stated in independent testimony that for $150,000 spent to build a one-bedroom unit downtown, three two-bedroom units could be built in a D.C. neighborhood outside downtown.

This is not to say that some housing should not be built downtown. The area should boast a residential community of all ages, income levels and ethnicities. But the housing that is built should not be at the expense of other municipal priorities.

The people who came up with a vision for a "living downtown," which was incorporated in the city's comprehensive plan, could not have foreseen the transformations that would take place in the 10 years since. Even 18 months ago, no one could have predicted the magnitude of the changes now influencing the future of the District.

Today, the city is facing a serious economic crisis unlike anything of the last decade. The population of young professionals expected to create demand for downtown housing, without taxing city services has not manifested itself. While there has been enviable development downtown, there are now signs of a weakening market. Some local lenders have pulled out of the real estate market.

Ten years ago, downtown was expected to provide an annual growth of $50 million in tax revenues. The plan before the Zoning Commission places that growth at risk. The money would provide funding for a wide range of critical needs, from housing to health care to education.

Downtown is not just a collection of economic futures any more than it is a collection of land uses. It is a community of many interdependent assets. If these assets are carefully managed we will have invested wisely on behalf of District residents.

Before the Zoning Commission takes a bold step, there should be public hearings on this most recent housing alternative for downtown. -- Carol Thompson -- Robert M. Gladstone are co-chairs of the D.C. Downtown Partnership. Miss Thompson is D.C. city administrator. Mr. Gladstone is president of the Quadrangle Development Corp.