THE FUTURE of McLean Gardens has been the subject of intense, sometimes bitter, debate for many years. Residents, owners and city officials haven't ever been able to agree on what to do with the 43 acres of trees, grass and low-rise apartment buildings located just a few blocks from the Washington Cathedral. There has been talk of converting the site to such things as an embassy complex, a hospital, office buildings, a shopping center or a very expensive condominium community. Not too long ago, yet another plan was offered: California developer Dwight W. Mize signed a contract to buy the complex and convert the rental apartments into condominiums that will cost from $45,000 to $75,000 for each unit, with about 200 units reserved for elderly residents.

Each time there has been the slightest possibility that the moderately priced rental units would be eliminated, the McLean Gardens residents, along with other interested groups, fought the scheme - and this time is no different. Opposition rests on the fact that comparable housing at the same low rents isn't available in Washington. Tearing down more than 700 units, many of the tenants claim, would cause them extreme hardship. What's more, tenants are considering filing a suit to stop Mr. Mize's proposal, charging that city officials approved the conversion request so hastily that they violated some of their own regulations.

But when it comes to rental property, landlords are increasingly unwilling to own buildings that don't bring in enough rents to cover their costs. That's why a significant number of rental units are being converted into condominiums. In an attempt to slow this trend, city officials have mandated that apartment buildings with fairly low rents may not be turned into condominiums. Fortunately, this recent order would not affect McLean Gardens. That at least saves the site from becoming an outpost for office buildings or other non-residential activities. Still, the tenants are fighting a well-intentioned but misconceived battle. As difficult as it may be for them to admit, McLean Gardens isn't likely to stand still amidst the swirling winds of the local housing market; it is just too valuable a property. The McLean Gardens residents must reckon with the possibility that, if they win their fight to stop the conversion, they may wind up losing the entire complex altogether.