By 1978, the once-rural community of Bowie was the third-largest city in Maryland, thanks to the efforts of builder William J. Levitt and his successors. But the population of the Prince George's County community totaled only 42,000, 8,000 below projections.

City manager G. Charles Moore says much of the city's slackened growth rate was due to the building moratorium imposed in the county in the mid-1970s. r

But Nicholas Pelagatti -- project manager for a Levitt rival, Frank Gaegler's City of Capitals, Inc., development firm in Bowie -- lays the blame for slowed growth on Levitt's failure to construct a massive downtown office and retail complex called New Town Center that was first proposed in 1969.

Levitt had built up the area north of Rte. 50 in Bowie and now wanted to work on the southern end, where city offices and apartments were to be placed. But Prince George's officials were hoping to build an airpark south of Central Avenue, the southern border of Levitt's proposed development.

"Everyone, including Levitt, knew how hard it would be to sell housing next to an airport," said Pelagatti -- who was the county project coordinator for the airpark planning at the time. "So Levitt shifted his timetable and skipped to Pointer Ridge along Central Avenue for his next construction phase.

"Believe it or not, the county gave him the permits and zoning he needed to beat them to the punch."

In the early 1970s, residents of about 1,000 houses in Pointer Ridge defeated the county's plans for an airpark. And the county turned its attention to industrial development along the Beltway.

This left an undeveloped area in the middle of the new Bowie. International Telephone & Telegraph Corp., parent company of Levitt & Sons by the early 1970s, still wanted to build the New Town Center. But a multitude of problems blocked these plans.

ITT's housing operations were losing money, and the housing firm went into trusteeship and then on to other owners.

A county master plan adopted in 1974 called for a new central complex, but by then, the profitability of the building plan was in question. Landover Mall to the west, Penn Mar to the south, Laurel shopping complexes to the north and the Parole Shopping Center to the east had drawn away the Bowie center's potential for success. Meanwhile, no housing had been constructed near the site.

"Had Levitt built the New Town Center first," Pelagatti said, "Bowie's growth pattern probably would have remained on target."

Today the 437 Land Co. of Fairfax owns about 2,000 acres, most of the Levitt Corp.'s prime holdings in Bowie. The 385-acre tract, formerly slated for the New Town Center and a 1.3-million-square-foot retail operation, won't be used for about 10 years, said land company spokesman James M. dEFrancia.

DeFrancia said an economic study conducted by the Rouse Co. of Columbia and discussions with natinal retailers indicated that after 1990, the site would be "the best-suited location for a regional mall between Washington and Annapolis."

DeFrancia says his firm also hopes to begin construction on about 200,000 square feet of office space and about 900 housing units.

Bowie's planning director, RICHARD J. Smith, said the town center area is being designated a special planning district, and will be "reevaluated in light of current economic conditions and the needs of city residents." Smith said the city is nearly finished with a detailed economic and employment analysis, and is anxious to see 1980 Census data.

However, Pelagatti says the Gaegler firm doesn't need to wait for all that. Its Bowie Park Center, located across Rte. 197 from the former Levitt land, is ready for development, he said. Gaegler plans to build about a million square feet of office and commercial space on 104 acres, bounded by Rte. 50 on the north an Rte. 3 on the east, over the next 10 years.

Pelagatti describes Bowie as "the geographic center of Maryland, almost equal distances from the District, Baltimore and Annapolis."

"Our growth picture is definitely turning abound," city manager Moore said. "There is on-going or near-term development of housing totaling nearly 2,000 units. During the decade we may see up to 4,000 units under present plans."

But some residents of Bowie, traditionally an area of moderate-priced homes, are concerned that their children will not be able to live in the Bowie of the future. Town houses in a planned complex called Allen Pond, for instance, will begin at around $59,000. The Pulte Corp., builder of medium-priced houses, is selling its latest products in its Collington Green project for prices starting in the upper $60,000s.

Levitt homes in the early 1960s sold for about $15,000. Used houses, nearly 1,000 of which are resold in Bowie each year, are still among the cheapest for their size in the metropolitan area, the city manager insists. Levitt homes today sell for about $75,000.

There are still no apartment buildings in Bowie, although about 1,000 homes are rented. About 450 apartment units may be built over the next five years.

Meanwhile, some builders are laying plans for $100,000 to $200,000 houses on one- to five-acre lots in the city.

During the next 10 years, Moore predicts, there also will be an increase in employment opportunities and light commercial enterprise.

The city council has endorsed plans for an industrial park on 1,281 acres off Central Avenue -- where the county airpark was to be. The initial 100 acres of development is scheduled between now and 1985.

Moore maintains that Bowie has become what its citizens wanted of it: "a suburban community of good quality, lower-cost homes that offers exceptional family-oriented activities and recreation." Bowie officials say the city has about 100 recreational facilities -- more than any other city in the state.

City planner Smith says this kind of community accounts for its large family size -- just under four people per household, which is considerably higher than the 2.8 national average. The city manager pointed out that there has also been a constant reduction in residential property tax rates. In 1973, Bowie homeowners paid $4.77 per $100 of assessment. In fiscal 1981, they will pay less than $4 per $100.

"The city tax share of that amount is only 54 cents for FY 1981," Moore said, "one of the lowest rates of any incorporated city in the state."

That does compare favorably to neighboring Anne Arundel County, where the tax burden has been lower. Now, according to developer Pelagatti, a $60,000 town house in Anne Arundel's Crofton commands $962 in yearly taxes while a comparable property in Bowie requires $855.

However, Norman Cooper, city councilman from Bowie's 5th District (the area about to undergo the most intense development), says Bowie's future will suffer unless more employment opportunities are generated within the city, which serves largely as a bedroom community for other employment centers.

Cooper said he looks forward to more office buildings, the industrial park and the retail operations. "In addition," he said, "we need clean, light industry -- research firms and the likes of what have settled in Montgomery County or what's been brought into Salisbury, Md."

All that may be in Bowie's future if proposed development plans come to fruition. And, with the intended up-grading of Rte. 50 to a six-lane Interstate 97, and Rte. 3 to Interstate 297 between Baltimore and Richmond, Bowie could be the true crossroad of Maryland by the turn of the century.

And revised population projections by 1990 by the Metropoitan Washington Council of Governments indicate that Bowie will have a populaton of 50,000 by 2000.