Washington planning officials yesterday unveiled a long-awaited and potentially controversial comprehensive land-use proposal that would restrict most future commercial growth to the downtown area and most industrial development to the New York Avenue NE corridor.

The lengthy document assumes that by the year 2000 the District's declining population will finally level off, with city residents generally older and richer than the current population. Residents will live in smaller households, planners say, increasing the demand for new housing.

At the same time, they predict that most of Washington's economic growth will occur downtown, providing 110,000 new jobs for professionals -- but few for blue-collar workers.

Officials of the D.C. Office of Planning and Development, who prepared the proposal required by the Home Rule Charter, said it was designed to help stabilize the population and assure orderly commercial, industrial and residential growth.

Completion of the 332-page document marks the city's first big step toward adopting comprehensive policies for future development and revising out-of-date zoning laws.

Since the Home Rule Charter was adopted in 1973, the city has operated without any type of development master plan. In effect, policy was determined piecemeal through the individual case rulings of various agencies, including the Redevelopment Land Agency and the Zoning Commission.

The release of the plan, which is not expected to be submitted in its final form until early next year, also signals the start of a debate involving members of community groups who are miffed that they were excluded from the initial planning and who doubt they will have much influence over the final draft.

The document skirts some highly sensitive issues -- such as historical preservation, riverfront development and permissible commercial and residential densities -- that James O. Gibson, assistant city administrator for planning and development, said are intended to be resolved through a lengthy process of public hearings.

Some critics say that that decision means the touchy issues will be dealt with in a hasty and political fashion.

"What they are doing is setting motherhood-type goals with nothing fine-tuned," said Ann Hargrove, a former Advisory Neighbhorhood Commission (ANC) chairman from Adams-Morgan. "There will be no guide for zoning."

The proposal recommends, among other things:

* Restricting future retail and office development to the downtown central core and to neighborhood and regional centers along major arterials. Commercial development would not be allowed to encroach on residential neighborhoods, particularly those located just west of downtown and near Massachusetts, Wisconsin and Connecticut avenues in Northwest Washington.

* Confining new light industry primarily to the New York Avenue corridor and along the B & O Railroad/Metro rail line in Northeast Washington.

* Regulating land use by the city, federal government and private firms along the 15 miles of city waterfront that ranges from Georgetown to the esplanades of East and West Potomac parks to the banks of the Anacostia River. The plan would encourage greater public access to waterfront and shoreline areas.

* Devising three new zoning categories for residential areas, including so-called "redirection areas," primarily in Northeast and Southeast Washington, which require concentrated public and private efforts to improve deteriorated or abandoned housing.

* Altering traffic patterns to give top priority to pedestrians and persons using public transit systems, rather than to motorists.

Gibson said yesterday the document also underscores the scarcity of vacant land (2,000 acres) for expansion and the desperate need for schools to train residents for the highly technical jobs that will become available over the next two decades.

"Any reading of this plan discloses that education and skills training is the single most important issue facing the community over the next 20 years," Gibson told reporters.

"For people without skills, this is a city that will be very difficult to survive in."

Mayor Marion Barry was repeatedly criticized during this year's Democratic primary campaign for taking four years to complete the comprehensive plan.

Even with the release of a draft proposal yesterday, adoption of a final version is unlikely until late next year.

Gibson disagreed yesterday that community groups should have been brought into the planning process sooner.

He said his office's draft proposal offers a broad outline for future land-use policies that now will be fleshed out with the aid of community groups that have prepared neighborhood plans.

"Small area plans should be within a framework that has been assessed fiscally and environmentally," Gibson said.

But some community leaders insist they they should have been consulted long before now.

"There are people in different parts of town who have worked on plans for ages but haven't gotten the city's attention or respect to incorporate any of them [in the comprehensive plan]," said Carol Currie, chairman of the Citizens Planning Coalition.

"I have to wonder whether the city is serious about listening to its citizens."

The document says the city will need to increase its current housing stock of 227,000 units by 20,000 in the next 20 years to meet the demand of an additional 25,000 households.

The plan calls for an economic mix of housing and urges development of a "viable residential community" in the downtown area.

However, Gibson said that the high cost of downtown land precludes the possibility of building anything other than luxury condominiums and apartments there.

The Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation, a quasi-public agency responsible for overseeing part of the downtown redevelopment, last year backed down from an earlier commitment to include moderate and middle-income housing in its plans because of the prohibitively high cost of land.

In outlining possible economic strategies, city planners suggested creating a surplus city land bank to spur commercial and industrial expansion, and a semi-public economic development corporation.

Both ideas were proposed during the primary campaign by two of Barry's opponents, lawyer Patricia Roberts Harris and City Council member Charlene Drew Jarvis (D-Ward 4).

The proposal calls for the clustering of future commercial develop near subway stops, instead of strip development.

However, Gibson said the proposal did "not necessarily" signal a change in the administration's commitment to rebuilding several commercial areas, including those along H Street NE and Georgia Avenue.