THE REDEVELOPMENT Land Agency's award of development rights for two parcels of Columbia Heights land is playing to mixed reviews. It is either, as the RLA and winning developers contend, the first sign that a renaissance is at hand in the barren neighborhood around the Columbia Heights core. Or, as critics charge, the RLA decision is a signal to future developers to stay out of the District, because key development issues are still decided on the basis of whom you know. There seems to be no middle ground.

The matter is settled for Robert Walker, RLA chairman and appointee of former mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly. His five-member board, including three appointees of Mayor Anthony Williams, unanimously picked developers Tivoli Partners and DC USA. The board believes that if the $149 million proposals succeed in bringing in a major supermarket, movie complex, ice-skating rink, indoor amusement park, stores, restaurants and town houses as promised, other available Columbia Heights parcels will become even more valuable and will act as magnets for future development. Mr. Walker maintains that politics had no bearing on the board's actions. He told this page, "The mayor had absolutely no influence over our decision."

The RLA's most vocal opponents backed the losing $135 million Forest City plan. Forest City, which wanted to build on twice as much land, proposed a mixture of stores, movie screens, grocery store, town houses and a performing arts center in a restored Tivoli Theater. But that would have meant giving Forest City access to one of the parcels awarded to one of the winning developers, reported Post staff writer David Montgomery.

As it stands, the winning developers now must negotiate to buy the property, submit detailed plans, obtain financing, lease the property and get final approval from the city. That's a tall order. But the developers aren't the only players with something on the line.

The RLA also faces a challenge. It must assure citizens, if it can, that the community planning process is a valuable undertaking and that citizen input is desirable and taken seriously. Parts of Columbia Heights, a neighborhood burned by looters 31 years ago, are still smoldering over the RLA's decision. A wise board and mayor will move to cool the situation.