The battle being waged before the D.C. Zoning Commission about downtown development has been characterized as a moral struggle {"On the Brink of a Bad Decision," Close to Home, July 15}.

On one side, some would have us believe, are the planning elitists, who supposedly represent the interests of affluent whites. On the other side are the affordable-housing crusaders, supposedly the standard-bearers for the District's poor, most of whom are African Americans. But that's not quite the case.

The so-called elitists, who include the Coalition for a Living Downtown, back the D.C. Comprehensive Plan, which envisions a mix of uses downtown -- offices, hotels, stores, nightclubs, art space and, most significant, housing. The plan calls for 9,000 households at the heart of the city by the year 2000, 20 percent of which would be subsidized.

But developers do not want to build housing downtown. They want to convert the downtown into a 9-to-5 office park with a few luxury hotels sprinkled in for variety.

So they have come up with an alternative plan, and that's where the affordable-housing crusaders come in. Instead of following the comprehensive plan, the developers say that for the money it would take to build housing downtown they could fund twice as many low- and moderate-income housing units in outlying neighborhoods. Far Northeast and Southeast are usually identified as the areas likely to receive such housing. And they have made allies of the nonprofit housing producers, who have come forward to vocally agree with them. Those who favor housing downtown are made to seem as though they don't care about the poor.

But the argument for bypassing downtown housing in favor of housing elsewhere ignores some of the basics.

First, it makes it seem as though we in the District must choose between a viable downtown and housing. We don't. We can have both.

Second, it assumes that the city will work without a functioning downtown, where people live. That concept ignores the experience of the past 30 years.

Third, it ignores the District's need to keep its remaining middle-income households and attract new ones. Meanwhile, it banishes low- and moderate-income housing units to out-of-the-way neighborhoods -- just as community-based residential facilities (including controversial transitional housing for ex-offenders, drug treatment facilities, etc.) have been banished before them.

The developers may be trying to appear as the champions of D.C.'s African Americans, but the participation of African Americans and other Washingtonians of color in this debate has been noticeably limited. Ironically, at zoning hearings, it has become apparent too that the producers of nonprofit housing are, as a group, almost as white and as male as the producers of downtown office buildings.

The downtown belongs to the entire District. We shouldn't just cede it to tourists and commuters on the promise of a partial and unproven plan to solve housing problems. Let's fight to keep our downtown alive. -- Terry Lynch -- Laura Richards are members of the Coalition for a Living Downtown; Terry Lynch is also a Democrat running for the D.C. Council.