The District's 1984 Comprehensive Plan, hundreds of pages and thousands of paragraphs long, is filled with lofty ideals and recommendations with which almost everyone can agree. Indeed, much of its language could be applied readily to any city.

But a land-use map, indispensable to any comprehensive city plan, is expected to be concrete and specific, showing graphically what uses should go with what property. Unlike many broad, written policy declarations, it has direct impact on individuals whose lives and fortunes may be affected.

The D.C. government recently adopted the Comprehensive Plan's land-use element, along with four colorful land-use maps. Map 1, titled "District of Columbia Generalized Land Use Map," shows ultimate uses in all categories for the entire District. Maps 2, 3, and 4 separate uses into "Residential," "Commercial and Production and Technical Employment," and "Local Public and Institutional" categories. They break down as follows:

*Residential. Low density -- single-family detached and semidetached housing. Moderate density -- row houses and garden apartments. Medium density -- midrise apartments. High density -- high-rise apartments.

*Commercial. Low density -- small scale, neighborhood retail. Moderate density -- drug and grocery stores, specialty shops, department store branches, personal service establishments. Medium density -- concentrations of varied stores and services. High density -- business/retail heart of the District with mixed uses.

*Public and institutional. Federal lands and facilities, excluding parks. Local public facilities -- D.C. government lands and facilities, excluding parks. Institutional -- colleges, universities, religious institutions. Parks, recreation and open space -- D.C. and national parks, recreation centers, cemeteries.

*Production and technical employment. Restructured industrial land for wholesaling, warehousing, communications, printing and publishing, transportation and tourism support services.

All four maps show rivers, parklands, major roads, avenues and highways, plus the Metro system and stations. But the District's grid-pattern streets and its subdivision streets and alleys are not delineated. Therefore, it is often difficult or impossible to ascertain exactly where generalized land-use boundaries occur, although overall patterns are clear.

This imprecision is not accidental, for the plan and its maps are intended to be somewhat loose-fitting and pliable, like a chemise, not tight and revealing like designer jeans. The "Declaration of Major Policies" explicitly states that "the land-use element does not identify or fix every use, height and density on every block in the District. The text and the maps construct a guiding framework within which public and private land use and zoning decisions are to be made."

Criteria throughout the plan's text are subject to broad interpretation. Who determines what is "adequate," "sufficient," "innovative," "orderly," "effective," "practical," "adverse," "stable" or "appropriate?" Accompanying these adjectives are comparable verbs: "enhance," "upgrade," "promote," "facilitate," "maximize" and "encourage." Perhaps such a vocabulary is unavoidable in a plan meant to guide rather than prescribe.

In order "to coordinate governmental land-use decisions with plan provisions," "to revise or eliminate obsolete land-use regulations" and "to improve enforcement of land-use regulations," the plan recommends additional review and coordination councils, studies, controls and agency staff. Depending on your point of view, this may be good or bad news.

Generally, the land-use maps contain few surprises. No industrial parks are proposed for Northwest's Ward 3, Capitol Hill or Fort Dupont Park. The future of land use projected onto the land-use maps closely follows development and zoning patterns firmly established long ago.

Only at the scale of small, individual neighborhoods, blocks and properties does the land-use map occasionally suggest that change might occur. It identifies eight so-called "special treatment areas," pieces of the District designated for redevelopment, preservation, or new and additional mixed uses.

The Fort Totten Metro Station Area is one, earmarked for medium-density, mixed commercial and residential uses. Chinatown is a chosen area, "a thriving, mixed-use downtown community" to include housing, cultural facilities, street-level retail, related wholesale operations, offices and hotels. Design standards should "enhance the Chinese character of the area."

Lower 16th Street, the northern approach to Lafayette Park and the White House, is another special area. The plan proposes that it be protected and "enhanced," that unique urban design and architectural criteria be developed (it doesn't say what they should be), and that hotels be retained.

In Anacostia, Saint Elizabeth's Hospital and D.C. Village are slated for "enhancement." The area stretching northward from Union Station past New York and Florida avenues, referred to as Northeast 1/Eckington Yards, is to become a center for high technology and light industries combined with low-rent offices.

Metrorail station "development opportunity areas" include Friendship Heights, Columbia Heights, 14th and U NW, Georgia and New Hampshire, Mount Vernon Square, Rhode Island Avenue, Brookland, Buzzard Point, Anacostia and Hechinger Mall. Mixed uses are advocated "at appropriate levels of intensity . . . to make full use of the public transportation opportunities that the stations provide and to increase Metrorail ridership."

New or upgraded neighborhood shopping centers appear on the maps, primarily along major avenues north and east of downtown, and in Anacostia. Mixed commercial and residential uses of medium to high density dominate lower Georgetown, Foggy Bottom, the West End, the 8th Street NW corridor and the bow-tie-shaped area around Mount Vernon Square.

The Local Public and Institutional Land Use map has a ward-by-ward list of capital improvements to be made to schools, fire stations, police stations, recreation centers, career development centers, and health and social service centers.

The City Council adopted the maps with a number of amendments that resulted from further planning staff scrutiny, public hearings and citizen comments. Most of these amendments represent attempts to refine, clarify and pin down the precise locations of specific D.C. properties with respect to the land-use categories mapped over them. There are approximately 100 such detailed amendments. For example:

"The east side of the 2700 block of Connecticut Avenue NW is included in the medium density residential land-use category."

"The north side of E Street NW between 19th Street NW and 22nd Street NW is included in the high density commercial land-use category."

Seemingly nit-picking amendments correct mapping errors or inexactness. But many represent the interests of owners seeking unambiguous designation for uses permitted under current zoning. Otherwise, land could be master-planned to the economic or aesthetic detriment of owners or abutting neighbors.

The land-use element and maps offer considerable latitude in interpretation while reflecting Washington's relative maturity as a city already shaped by history and past policies. But when specific projects are designed, financed and built, there is still the risk that the District's zoning ordinance may impede implementation of some parts of the plan.

Or zoning actions may be inconsistent with the plan, which alone cannot prevent the Board of Zoning Adjustment or the Zoning Commission from liberally interpreting the plan's intent as they make zoning decisions for individual projects.

If the plan, not the zoning ordinance, is to guide the District's future, then the next item on the city's agenda of reform should be overhauling and simplifying zoning maps, regulations and policies. Zoning, not the plan, remains the governing law.

NEXT: Back to building. By Roger K. Lewis; Roger K. Lewis teaches architecture at the University of Maryland and is a practicing architect.