On one side of the street, about 30 sign-carrying demonstrators stages a colorful demonstration yesterday to try to save historic Rhodes Tavern at its current site. On the other side, developer Oliver T. Carr, who wants to tear down or more the builders, gathered with planners and city officials to hear a national official say that historic preservation "should be the centerpiece" of downtown development in Washington.

Members of the Citizens Committee to Save Historic Rhodes Tavern, led by attorney Joseph N. Grano Jr., assembled a group of protesters outside the 181-year-old building at 15th and F Streets NW -- a flute player offering a rendition of "Greensleeves," a bagpiper, a juggler and more than a dozen placard-carriers whose signs listed historic events that took place in the tavern.

"We're making downtown a 'people place,'" said Grano. He gestured toward the Hotel Washington across F Street where Carr and the other developers and officials were holding a day-long conference on downtown development. "They talk about diversity and all that. It's easy -- just look."

Grano was referring to a recent report by the Greater Washington Board of Trade called "Downtown: A People Place." Carr headed the Board of Trade task force that drew up the report, which was used as an unofficial departure point for yesterday's conference, sponsored by the Board of Trade, the D.C. Bar and the Committee of 100 on the Federal City.

Participants heard Michael Ainsley, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, say that "preservation should be the centerpiece of downtown development in Washington."

Ainsley said that a mixture of new and renovated builders "is the way of the future" in downtown development. "And it is profitable," he said.

Ainsley urged the city government to act fast in deciding what kind of renewed downtown it would like to see, and cited other cities that have made developers subject to stringent demands. As an example, he named San Francisco, which Ainsley said requires developers of office buildings to provide a specified number of housing units somewhere in the city, and is considering forcing developers to pay a special transit assessment to help defray the costs of moving office employes to and from their new place of work.

"Downtown development is the best investment in America today," Ainsley said. "And the developers are not going to go away, even if the city is definitive about what it wants."

Ainsley declined to comment on Rhodes Tavern or the protest across the street, except to quip that "a gentlemen is a man who knows how to play the bagpipes and doesn't."

But the bagpipes droned on, along with a flute and concertina duet and the martial cadence of Grano's barked orders to his sign-carrying flock. They stood in a row, and one side of the placards spelled out "Oliver Carr Save Rhodes Tavern," while on the other side the cards detailed events that occurred at the building -- the city's oldest commercial structure -- during its two centuries of existence.

The fight over the tavern is now tied up in the D.C. Court of Appeals. City planning director James O. Gibson said he believed a site has been identified for relocation of the structure -- a parcel owned by the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation on Indiana Avenue NW between Sixth and Seventh streets.

Carr said he is amenable to the idea of moving the building, but Grano said his group was not. "That's silly," he said. "It's like moving Mount Vernon to Maryland. The building is important because all these events happened here."

The events described on the protesters' signs ranged from the first city election in 1802 to actress Sarah Bernhardt's farewell to Washington in 1912.