BY A 3-TO-2 vote after a solid year of hearings and compromises, the zoners of the capital city have succeeded in making a point. It is that nobody has a foolproof recipe for a perfect downtown to serve, house and please all walks of urban life. The D.C. Zoning Commission's objective was to approve a plan requiring developers to build housing downtown along with office buildings. One way or another, that's what is supposed to happen if the commission's vote stands. But the lukewarm reception given the measure in most corners of the city indicates public doubts about exactly what can be developed by formula. Who can or should live in the heart of the city? And what exactly should developers be required to do about it?

The commission's compromise approved Monday is meant to guarantee construction of several thousand apartments or condominiums in the east-end part of Washington's downtown. Developers also would be given the option of fulfilling a part of their housing quotas by financing housing in other sections of the city.

This is where supporters and opponents divide into those who seek to increase the number of people living downtown and those who seek to increase affordable housing throughout the city. One supporter, Terry Lynch, executive director of the Downtown Cluster of Congregations, believes the approved measure can produce mixed use downtown as well as affordable housing anywhere in the city. A leading opponent, Jim Dickerson, a developer of nonprofit housing, argues that the plan emphasizes luxurious housing downtown at the expense of housing elsewhere -- a view shared by builders, the Greater Washington Board of Trade, the local government administration and the majority of the D.C. Council. J. Kirkwood White, a zoning lawyer who represents developers, says some developers "will be able to live with it and some won't."

It may well be that downtown's development can generate the financing for whatever still passes for "affordable housing" throughout the city. But if the result is a patchwork of luxury oases downtown or a halt in development because housing proves unprofitable on this expensive land, there may be little to show anywhere. At this point, the commission has yet to adopt precise formulas for developers' construction requirements. This is critical and will surely generate a new round of legal and political challenges. That need not mean a setback; all sides in this experiment will need to adjust as it proceeds.