It was the jewel of Mayor Marion Barry's much-heralded governmental reorganization: a one-stop center where homeowners and contractors could get all the necessary construction permits instead of having to collect them from eight different places around town.

To Barry and others, the permit center was the physical manifestation of a changed attitude in the District, one that fostered economic development at all levels.

Today, seven years after its creation as part of the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, the permit center is chronically understaffed, nearly strangled by its recent computerization and so crowded that two-hour waits are commonplace.

Contractors say the permit process is burdensome and costly, while homeowners consider it so unfathomable that many simply ignore it. And firms that specialize in obtaining permits for others say business is flourishing.

On a recent morning, 42 people were in line ahead of Cephas Striplin when the Omni Construction Inc. employee arrived at the center minutes after its 9 a.m. opening.

Striplin was there for the seventh time in seven months to renew three separate permits that allow Omni to obstruct curbs during its renovation of the Warner Theatre at 13th and E streets NW.

Although the project is expected to take five years, there is no simple way to renew the permits. Every 30 days Striplin must go through the entire application process.

On this morning it will take him more than two hours just to reach the starting point, the center's information desk, and another two hours to obtain two permits. And because applicants may submit only two permits at a time and the office closes at 3 p.m., Striplin will have to repeat the whole procedure the next day.

"It's exasperating at times," he said. "They've got the modern technology, but you've got to have common sense too."

Department Director Donald G. Murray said that although staffing problems, computerization and other complications have slowed it down, the District is accomplishing its main objective: safeguarding the public.

"There has never been a major economic project in the city that has not taken place on time and safely," Murray said in a recent interview.

"Many people have lost sight of the fact that the value of the permit and inspection process is to make sure that someone else is looking at the work and that it is done correctly and safely," Murray added.

Even the use of licensed professionals doesn't guarantee good work, according to city officials. In recent months, 40 percent of electrical work in the city has failed inspection, although all such work must be performed under the supervision of a licensed master electrician.

"In general, the District is probably still in the leadership in terms of the one-stop center," Murray said.

However, he acknowledged that the center has been overwhelmed at times because of a continuing building boom, budget cutbacks and long lines resulting from placing all the permit operations under one roof.

To complicate matters, the city is saddled with complex zoning regulations -- remnants of the District's prior federal status -- that impose overlapping sets of special requirements for about half the property here.

Moreover, the city code requires that permits be issued for an extraordinary range of activities, from constructing a building to replacing a toilet.

Fueled by the the region's economic growth, the number of permits processed by the city increased from 33,909 in fiscal 1983, the year the permit center was established, to 44,107 last year.

The number of building permits alone rose from 6,810 in 1986 to 11,948 in 1989.

About 75 percent of the building permits are issued over the counter, but more complicated plans must be submitted for review and approval -- a process that averages 22 days for projects of less than $75,000 and 109 days for projects worth more than $10 million. Last year 2,394 of these so-called major plans were reviewed.

The creation of the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs combined eight city bureaus and agencies, along with portions of several others, and for the first time put all the city's regulatory functions under one umbrella. The new permit center offered 80 different permits at one downtown location.

But centralization has caused backlogs and crowding as everyone from contractors with multimillion-dollar projects to homeowners putting up fences had to go to the same place and stand in the same line, an average of 200 people a day, soaring at times to 1,000.'Bending Their Limits'

Understaffed from its inception, the department has seen its work force decline in the past seven years. Its budget this year, $30.3 million, is 10 percent less than in 1986. Gerry Chapman, the department's budget chief, said the decline in real dollars is nearly 25 percent. Despite the increasing workload, the permit center has a staff of only about 35, compared with its authorized strength of 43.

"When things get tight and you have less people on board, there is a higher level of frustration and lower morale," said Chapman. With fewer employees to do more work, "in certain areas we are now bending their limits," he said.

One tight spot is the center's zoning desk, where the recent death of one employee and the unexpected departure of another left only Ed Nunley to make the crucial zoning decisions. So for months, every day from 1 to 2 p.m., while Nunley took a lunch break, the zoning desk simply shut down, causing even more backups.

Computerization has also slowed the process, as employees unaccustomed to working with computers struggle with the new system. For example, at the central information desk, employees who formerly could just check a series of boxes on the back of the application now must laboriously type into the computer all the information on each permit application.

Similarly, employees at the various desks used to simply initial the application form. Now they have to do that as well as enter the information into the tracking system.

Murray said that in the long run the new automated system will make the center "more responsive."

But contractors say these are just the latest glitches in an inherently complex system. For example, there are 11 different type of "holds," or special zoning regulations, that apply in the District, dealing with everything from property that overlooks Rock Creek Park to that within a certain distance of the White House or the vice president's residence on Massachusetts Avenue NW.

In addition, special regulations apply to the 19 historic districts in the city, which include about 40 percent of the land.

The head of a local construction company, who asked not to be identified, said he refuses to go down to the permit center because the experience usually ruins his week.

He said his company must charge at least $750 for processing the permits because it not only costs him the salary of one employee, but deprives him of revenue that could have been brought in by the employee during the time spent at the permit center.

The head of another local construction company describes the permit process as a cumbersome, frustrating and almost humiliating experience, but added that he has never been treated unfairly.

Other firms, such as Reliabilt Construction Co. of Rockville, have stopped working in the District. "It not only takes forever to get a permit," said the company's president, Glen Geramifar, "but it's like walking into a no-man's land."Confounded by Complexity

A D.C.-based building contractor said the complexities of District zoning and building regulations make it difficult to know what is required or how the regulations are applied in a particular situation.

A Capitol Hill resident who recently sought a permit to build an arbor in her back yard said zoning regulations were interpreted one way by the historic preservation officer and another by the official at the permit center's zoning desk.

The zoning official's interpretation -- the binding one, though it came on the third day the woman had spent seeking the permit -- meant the size of the arbor had to be reduced significantly.

Murray agreed that the center needs "to make sure that we provide consistent and standardized information to all users and services."

The only people who seem to work their way smoothly through the permit system are employees of permit-processing firms, the largest of which is Metropolitan Associated Permit Services Inc., also known as MAPS.

The company, which does everything from managing the entire permit process for large contracting projects to obtaining permits for most swimming pools installed in the area, attributes its success to familiarity with zoning regulations and building codes and working daily with agencies such as the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs.

"We make sure the clients' plans conform before we get in there," said Robert W. Sullivan, the company's chief operating officer. "That way, we keep everybody very happy."

Because of the volume of permits the company handles, it can process a permit for a residential renovation for a "couple of hundred dollars," Sullivan said.

Homeowners who try to cut costs by getting their own permits or who want a permit for work they will do themselves may be overwhelmed by the multistage permit process.

Eddie Sullivan, a Benning Heights resident interviewed recently at the center, said he was spending his second day there in an effort to get a permit to build a 20-by-21-foot garage, "just big enough to work on my 1964 Mustang."

Sullivan had drawn his own plans, but had asked a surveyor friend to check them over before submitting them to the permit process. "I'll wait as long as it takes," Sullivan said, noting that there were more than 50 people ahead of him in line at the information counter.

Murray and others said recent long lines at the center reflect a predictable summertime crush as homeowners seek to capitalize on the good weather.

But they concede that many other District residents just ignore the permit process altogether. Hampton Cross, head of the department's building and land regulation administration, said the department has no way to measure how much work is being done without permits, from fences to driveways to major interior renovations.

In most cases, people discovered doing work without a permit are turned in by their neighbors. Failure by an individual or company to obtain the proper permits results in an immediate $500 fine and issuance of a stop-work order.

Still, the woman seeking the permit for a back-yard arbor likened the application process to being in a treasure hunt where no one knew the rules.