A proposal that the United States give away a part of the Potomac River shore is once again before the public. The land in question is the 1.5 miles of the Alexandria waterfront.

The Alexandria waterfront has been an Indian hunting ground, a bustling merchants' port, a national defense facility and, more recently, a tempting morsel for the maws of development. In 1969, developers found a congenial political climate in which to peddle their wares -- office buildings and apartments with sweeping views cross-river of the nation's capital.

Before plans for development could be realized, however, the interest of the United States in the waterfront property had to be relinquished. Bills were introduced in Congress, at the request of the city of Alexandria, to quitclaim the U.S. interest to the city. The bills provided that the city would, in turn, settle with private parties on the condition that developers would provide certain amenities to the public. But citizens raised a numpus when they discovered that a 10-foot walkway was considered sufficient amenity for the public in return for public lands on which to build 22-story apartment buildings and private marinas.

The U.S. claim to Alexandria began in 1791 when Virginia and Maryland donated land to form the new capital city. When the Virginia lands were retroceded in 1846, the boundary between Alexandria and the District became the 1791 Virginia shoreline. But the exact location of the 1791 shoreline is not known because portions of the river were filled after 1791, and there has been dispute in Congress and the courts since 1846.

In 1921, the Supreme Court upheld the federal claim to all lands east of the 1791 high-water mark along the Alexandria waterfront. In 1972, a court suit was brought to settle the U.S. interest. That case is still pending.

For almost 10 years, conservationists, citizens, private parties and the city have pushed and pulled over plans for the waterfront. In 1978, the Interior Department offered to hammer out a joint land-use plan with the city. A public hearing was held, and more than 1,400 written requests were received for a maximum open space plan to be administered by the National Park Service.

Contrary to recent local newspaper reports, a settlement between the city and Interior has not been agreed upon. A public hearing is sheduled for tomorrow. The proposed land-use plan allows for private office buildings and multi-family dewellings, as well as stores, private marinas, clubhouses, museums, auditoriums and performing arts facilities. Even, the areas now in parkland would be available for construction of some sort.

Some provisions are clearly inappropriate. The entire area under consideration lies in a flood plain. To allow the construction of office buildings and apartments in a flood plain is gross negligence. The proposed walkway and bike trail along the shore would not be sufficient. City studies show that park and recreation lands are already in too short supply in Alexandria.

A waterfront park with facilities for boating could both fill a gap and attract more businesses and homeowners, which would broaden the tax base. Office buildings and multi-family dwellings would be more suited to the areas near the four Alexandria Metro stops.

The waterfront should be a place where all may enjoy the activities of the river, a public place where people may meander along the shore and stop in shops or restaurants and where boats can find safe harbor. The public interest here cannot be ignored or left to the vagaries of local government. Office buildings and multi-family dwellings must not be allowed to usurp the Alexandria waterfront.