Cranes and bulldozers and blue hard hats tell the story of the Georgetown waterfront these days. A dramatic change is taking place.

City planners estimate that within the next 10 to 20 years, the Georgetown waterfront, now the home of parking lots, warehouses, and ugly, abandoned mills, with a few shops and residences interspersed, will be completely transformed into a new mini-town.

The waterfront will one day have 800 to 1,500 or more new high-priced apartments and condominiums, luxury hotels, restaurants, specialty shops, a boat dock, tennis courts, food markets, and up to 3 1/2 million square feet of offices and stores, according to the planners.

As dramatic as these plans may seem, the Georgetown waterfront has gone through a number of phases over the years, according to Edgar H. Jackson, 78, and his mother-in-law. Martha Booth Hunter, 92, both of whom were born and reared in Georgetown.

In the early 1900s, the waterfront was a busy and noisy place full of coal and gravel companies, paper and flour mills, scows, freight trains and tobacco boats. Soap and fertilizer factories "smelled up the whole place," Jackson and Mrs. Hunter remember.

There were canoe races on holidays, horsedrawn streetcars that would take you to Rosslyn for 2 cents, and boats that brought supplies down the C&O Canal from Cumberland, Md.

"The main streets were cobble rocks, and the rest were dirt," said Jackson, who, as a boy used his billy goat-drawn wagon to pick up and deliver laundry for 10 cents a load.

Georgetown had been a thriving area since the 18th century, when it was a rough and tumble tobacco and grain port.

In his day, Jackson recalled, "little girls didn't go down there (near the waterfront)." The men who worked on the docks had no lunchrooms, so women with lard buckets full of stew and greens flocked to the docks at noon to sell their food. "Negro businesswomen," Jackson called them, because there was great competition among them.

But in recent years, industry has faded along the waterfront. City and federal agencies, as well as Georgetown residents, have clamored for new zoning that would allow homes and apartments in the waterfront area, which is located between M Street NW and the Potomac River, west of 28th Street NW and east of Key Bridge.

Redevelopment of the waterfront was made certain last week when D.C. Superior Court Judge Sylvia Bacon ruled that the city had the right in 1974 to rezone the area from its outmoded industrial category to one in which a variety of uses, including housing, are permitted.

The rezoning had been challenged in 1975 by the Citizens Association of Georgetown and two other civic groups, who wanted the area rezoned but not the way the city changed it. They wanted lower Georgetown to be an area of single-family homes, parks, and small commercial establishments, similar to the rest of Georgetown. The suit had been pending for two years.

Olcott H Deming, president of the citizens association, said his organization probably will decide at its regular meeting Monday night whether it will appeal the judge's decision.

The new zoning approved by Judge Bacon will limit the heights of buildings, reduce commercial development from 6.5 million-square-feet to 3.5 million-square-feet, allow and encourage residential development (including hotels), and protect the C&O Canal and the riverfront, according to J. Kirkwood White of the D.C. Municipal Planning Office.

White said that while much office development is permitted under the new zoning, he doesn't expect it to be fully used. Market studies have shown that there is an unlimited market in lower Georgetown for residences, and a market - but a limited one - for office and retail development, White said.

About half the waterfront area will have a height limitation of 40 feet; about 30 per cent will be limited to 60 feet, and the remaining 20 per cent to 90 feet, under the rezoning.

Present waterfront residents and store owners have mixed reactions to the development planned for their neighborhood.

Victoria Eastep lives on Cecil Place NW, across the mud and debris from the huge old Georgetown paper mill that is being transformed into a townhouse and apartment complex.

Eastep, says she thinks the project "should be nice" when it is finished. But right now, while she has to wake up every morning to hear dozens of construction workers and see an enormous old building that was partially hidden by trees before. "It's a pain."

Barbara Nalls, owner of the Canal Gallery and Craft Shop on 30th Street NW, says the waterfront looks "terrible" now and that the area desperately needs revitalization.

"I wouldn't think of walking near the waterfront at night," Nalls said. "It's even bad during the day." Balls said she would prefer to see Georgetown become like Williamburg, Va., but added, "that probably will never come to pass." She said that modern buildings don't fit in the area. "But," she added, "it's a lot better than what was there before."

Polly Shackleton, the City Council member for Georgetown, said she is worried that the development planned for the waterfront will create further environmental hazards "in an already envirimpacted area of traffic.

"Office buildings belong downtown and that's where they ought to be," Shackleton said.

Rosslyn in frequently brought up by waterfront residents as an example of what they don't want to happen to lower Georgetown. Donald Shannon, an Advisory Neighborhood Commission member who lives in the waterfront area, can view Rosslyn from his home, especially during the winter months when the trees are bare.

"It's ugly," Shannon said of the office complex across the river. "It's been an incentive. Everybody is afraid it (the waterfront) will look like Rosslyn. I just hope that anyone with a conscience realizes that this is not Rosslyn. God-awful office buildings are dead and kill the area."

Shannon said he would like to see development of the Georgetown waterfront follow the example sat in Old Town Alexandria, where historic colonial-style buildings. Shannon's view that new and newly renovated structures along the waterfront should be in the colonial style is not universally accepted as the best way to deal with old industrial buildings however.

Before any building can be constructed in historic Georgetown, the U.S. Fine Arts Commission must approve the developer's plans. Charles H. Atherton, secretary of the commission, said the Fine Art Commission is tryint to steer away from strict use of historical styles because so many of the buildings along the waterfront are large.

"It's hard to apply decorative and historical touches to such large buildings and make them look real," Atherton said. "We're striking out in new territory."

Atherton said the new structures proposed for the waterfront area will be brick, "with a graceful gesture toward harmonizing with the historical nature of the area."

He noted that the citizens have legitimate concerns about density in their neighborhoods. He said that before the ruling by Hudge Bacon last week, "when there was a possibility that the zoning was fragile," developers were cooperative in working with the commission to reduce the height of their buildings.

"We hope that doesn't change," Atherton said.

Arthur Cotton Moore, a Washington-based architect who has designed many of the more recently constructed buildings near the waterfront and others now under construction, said the recent decision by Judge Bacon, which went against the wishes of the citizen's groups, represents a classic case of what happens when residents rely on courts and lawyers "who should have nothing to do with planning," he said.

"They (the residents) relied on litigation and cut off communication," Moore said. "It's an all-or-nothing approach. They might have gotten something better or more friendly if they had negotiated."

Several residents interviewed pointed to the Dodge Center, a massive brick structure overlooking the Potomac River at Wisconsin Avenue and K Street NW, as an example of the type of tall, modern structure they don't want in Georgetown, as well as an example of how poorly office space may lease in lower Georgetown.

The Dodge Center was built by the Maloney Concrete Co., but when the building was bought this summer by two officers of CBI Fairmac, Inc., only one floor was leased, according to Walter Hodges, one of the new owners. Since that time, however, about half the building has been leased, Hodges said.

Projects either already under construction or proposed for the waterfront area include:

A 218-room hotel an 75,000-square-feet of office space at the corner of 29th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW., developed by Benjamin Jacobs.

A late 18th century-style inn with 44 rooms, plus offices, condominium apartments, and a town house, developed by Robert Morrison south of the C&O Canel between 29th and 30th Streets NW.

A 200-room hotel between 30th and Thomas Jefferson Streets.

About 10 condominiums on Cherry Hill between Wisconsin Avenue and the old paper mill.

A project with 101 town houses and 84 apartment condominiums plus 20,000-square-feet for offices and shops on the site of the old paper mill, develop by Holland and Lyons.

A complex of offices, apartments and a restaurant on property owned by the National Rural Utilities Cooperative Finance Corp. on 29th Street NW. The corporation itself is located in a renovated building on 30th Street NW.

A restaurant to be renovated on Grace Street, west of Wiscons in Avenue.

A complex of offices, 78 apartments and shops on the site of the former flour mill between Potomac and 33d Streets NW., developed by the Weinberg Development Corp., to be finished by the spring of 1979.

The Georgetown-Inland Corp owns a big chunk of the waterfront area - 6 acres. The corporation had planned an $80 million office, retail, hotel and condominium project for their property, but put aside those plans until the suit was settled, losing more than $1 million a year in interest and taxes, according to a company spokesman. Inland currently is reviewing its plans for the site.

In addition, the city is renovating the old Georgetown Market, on M Street NW., with federal funds. It will be leased and will sell fresh food, vegetables, and wine and cheese, White said.

The city also owns an old incinerator at South and 31sts Streets NW., which is no longer in use. Proposals currently are before the Department of General Services to turn the incinerator into either a dinner theater or apartments and a tennis club, White said.

The city also owns about 9 acres of waterfront property south of the Whitehurst Freeway, a structure whose name nearly everyone interviewed preceded with a four-letter word - ugly.

The 9 acres were acquired many years ago when the city thought the Whitehurst Freeway was going to be replaced with a tunnel from K Street to the Three Sisiter Bridge into Virginia, White said.

The permanent use of that land awaits a new transportation study that will begin next spring, he said, but the area will be used temporarily as an urban park with tennis courts, parking lots, and an impoundment lot for automobile violations.

White added that sometime in the future, there may be a boat dock, a plaza with landscaping, walkways, a bicycle rental shop, a tennis pro shop, and houses in the city-owned area depending on what the transportation study shows.

"It will take us back to the days when there were sailing ships along the waterfront," White said.

It is questionable how much good it will do if the citizen's group decide to appeal the recent zoning ruling. Most of the waterfront property now is already under construction or nearing it.

Resident Donald Shannon noted. "There can't be too many more surprises in a bad way. Just about everything is in the works." Then he added, "We'll survived."

Meanwhile, city planners say they are excited about the future of the Georgetown waterfront.

A report from the municipal planning office earlier this year said zoning laws now will provide the waterfront "an opportunity for innovative and appropriate new development and a corresponding increase in revenues."

According to planner White, lower Georgetown "is an attractive area that stands to be enhanced and make even more attractive."