Back in the days when Route 1 was the going thing around here, Washingtonians used to hoot at scruffy old "Bawl-mer," that Sad-Sack monument to industrial sclerosis that kept pretending to be a rival city. But like a Dorian Gray portrait in reverse, the scene here these days positively dazzles with a downtown boom of sonic dimensions.

Washington should take notes, for here is a convention center that clicks in all the ways that the District's bold and expensive venture may not -- unless people with enough vision and the money to match can put all the right pieces together on time.

Barely 10 months after its opening, Baltimore's attractive, $50-million convention center with its sleek structural glass trim and ultra-modern meeting facilities is surpassing the fondest financial dreams of its tub-thumping civic backers.

Even the center's most crotchety detractors of a few years ago are now starting to sing its praises as more and more conventioneers discover the new Baltimore that bustles all around it. Therein lies the key, too -- for this city's planners were careful not to pin all their hopes on a convention center alone as a magic magnet that would automatically bring new life to a tired neighborhood.

The center is only one gleaming part of a gigantic invigoration effort that has included up to $700 million in private urban-renewal investment in the downtown area. As columnist Neal R. Pierce has noted, the centerpiece of all this is an imaginative, $170-million, 29-acre city commons of skycrapers, plazas, outdoor cafes, retail shops, tourist attractions and overhead walkways that tie together the Inner Harbor area to form a lively -- and lived-in -- urban showcase.

The trick has been to make all these bold projects bloom more or less simultaneoulsy, from the splashy 500-room Hyatt Regency that will be connected by a walkway to the convention center, to the just-opened Harborplace -- the latest pride of developer James Rouse, father of Boston's vibrant Faneuil Hall Marketplace and Maryland's Columbia. Harborplace is a skylighted, terraced conglomeration of more than 20 waterside restaurants and 100 boutiques.

Within strolling distance, there is I. M. Pei's pentagonal World Trade Center, which, like its Big Apple brother, offers a stunning wrap-around top-floor view, complete with multi-media exhibits of Baltimore's history and attractions. In this building, which also is headquarters for the city's agressive campaign to woo international business, all foreign tourists or organizations are invited to use the services of the Baltimore Council for International Visitors, a nonprofit group that provides interpreters, arranges business appointments and coordinates hospitality in homes around the city.

Still, isn't Washington really the Number One international city, and the bigger convention draw? No questions. But Washington also turns out to be one of Baltimore's biggest selling points. With hotel rooms running about $20 a night less here, "we're selling Baltimore as the best convention buy in the East," says Convention Bureau Sales Manager Carroll Armstrong. With the final zip-into-town leg of i95 just opened, money-conscious travelers can make both ends meet more easily by availing themselves of this swift trail of two cities to enjoy the best of both.

Where Baltimore is succeeding and Washington still dragging is in the tying together of other facilities that can make or break a convention center. Only now are the District's planners drafting the kinds of zoning proposals and incentives necessary to attract large hotel and apartment developments to the area around the center being built between New York Avene and 9th, 11th and H Streets NW.

But many of the kinds of additional attractions that enhance the convention center neighborhood in Baltimore are going to be far from the Washington center site when that project is completed. Because Washington's act wasn't together when a convention-center/sports arena complex was first proposed, the arena wound up as the Capital Center in Largo, Md. Similarly, the Kennedy Center is on the waterfront across town, nearer the West End development of offices and in-town living.

So why have things clicked more easily in one city than in the other? Because of many circumstances beyond the District's control -- and some not -- it hasn't exactly enjoyed a strong city government with the powers to act swiftly and to galvanize big-league business money the way Baltimore's peripatetic Mayor William Donald Schaefer has done with such gusto over the years.

Another missing ingredient -- so far, at least -- is the kind of private-sector breadth of vision, imagination and long-range business perspective that James Rouse and others in Baltimore have brought to bear. Government by itself is not famous as a great initiator in this regard, and the District's financial strains aren't helping either.

Unless Washington wants another expensive white elephant to rival the fat one at Union Station, Mayor Barry is going to have to marshal the best business and financial minds he can find to get cracking on a collaborative, coherent -- and practical -- grand design. It has taken years of hoopla and hustling to bear fruit in Baltimore, but Washington surely can mobilize to meet that competition and ensure itself a lively and lucrative future downtown.