A development firm owned by Boston real estate and publishing magnate Mortimer B. Zuckerman has proposed construction of an eight-story office building on a site in Washington's West End where an existing covenant requires that only housing be built.

In return for bypassing the site's existing zoning and the three-year-old covenant, Boston Properties said it will donate up to $2.2 million to a nonprofit organization that provides housing opportunities for low-to-moderate-income families elsewhere in the city.

The donation-for-offices proposal, the latest in a growing number of such steps being used by developers eager to overcome existing zoning, has been sharply attacked by nearby Foggy Bottom and West End residents. Neighbors contend that such offers, made under the so-called housing linkage concept, are a simple and lucrative way for developers to ignore a neighborhood's zoning.

The residents contend that the Boston Properties proposal would further erode the residential character of their neighborhood, an area that the city has said should have a mix of offices and housing. They also said that any housing provided by the developer in exchange for permission to build the office tower, if approved at all, should be constructed in the West End, a rapidly transforming section of town where new housing has become scarce.

"They try to find all kinds of gimmicks. But they promised us housing," said James Molinelli, president of the West End Citizens Association. "To me, I don't care how nice of a building it will be. They're tearing away housing."

Opponents of Zuckerman, who also owns U.S. News & World Report, realize they have an uphill fight in their attempt to kill the proposed office building, which would be at the southeast corner of 25th and N streets NW on a site adjacent to the U.S. News building. They point to the growing popularity of housing linkage plans, embraced by politicians, city planners and developers who claim the housing-for-zoning-approval concept is an acceptable tradeoff to obtain low- and moderate-income homes in a city that is hard-pressed for such housing.

One D.C. developer, John Akridge Co., has already set a precedent for housing linkage. Last year, the D.C. Zoning Commission approved Akridge's plan to build a larger downtown office building than would normally be allowed under existing zoning in exchange for the firm's $1.5 million donation to a low-income housing group. That same panel will also consider the Boston Properties case in a hearing on Sept. 10 at the District Building.

But West End and Foggy Bottom neighborhood leaders argue that Boston Properties should not be allowed to ignore the zoning or the covenant that bars further office development on the site.

"Zoning is there for a purpose. They knew what they were getting into," said Ralph Rosenbaum, a member of the Advisory Neighborhood Commission that represents the Foggy Bottom and West End.

Boston Properties' Zuckerman was not available for comment, and other company executives did not return repeated telephone calls. But in documents submitted recently to the Zoning Commission, the firm argued that putting housing on the site, which is currently a parking lot, "is neither appropriate nor feasible because of the site constraints." The company stands to increase its profits by building an office building on the West End site rather than housing.

Rosenbaum, echoing the views of other residents, responded: "Every time there is an opportunity for new housing, a developer cries poor mouth. It's never economically feasible when they don't want to do it."

The zoning in that neighborhood is unique for Washington and is intensifying what is the latest of numerous recent confrontations between office developers and the dwindling number of West End residents. In an effort to stimulate development while keeping housing in the West End, the city in 1974 enacted a set of zoning provisions calling for mixed-use projects in the 99-acre neighborhood east of Georgetown. The zoning requirements essentially state that buildings constructed to their maximum density must include an equal mix of residential and office space.

Developers, however, have been permitted to transfer office and housing allotments within a particular site, as well as to count hotels as residences. That helps to explain the proliferation of hotels throughout the West End.

The effect of the office and housing transfer provision has been to give developers the right to construct buildings composed entirely of offices in one location, and all residences -- or more precisely, hotels -- at another nearby site.

Such is the case in the proposal by Boston Properties. When the U.S. News building was constructed several years ago, the city permitted the office space allotment from the adjacent parking lot to be transferred to the U.S. News site. As a result, the office component of the parking lot was, in essence, used up by the transfer, meaning that any new building on the parking lot site would have to be residential.

In 1984, Zuckerman purchased U.S. News and several parcels of valuable real estate in the West End -- including the parking lot at 25th and N streets -- for $176.3 million.

Now Zuckerman hopes to convince the city's zoning panel to let his firm ignore the covenant by donating $2.2 million to the Peoples Involvement Corp. (PIC), a nonprofit District group that, among other activities, buys and rehabilitates houses for low-income residents. Since Boston Properties is seeking to build 147,000 square feet of space, the donation amounts to about $15 per square foot.

That amount could change. A recent agreement between Boston Properties and the housing group states that the donation "shall not exceed a sum which would make development of the project economically unfeasible, as determined in Boston Properties' reasonable discretion."

Fred Greene, the District's planning director, said his office would look more favorably on the Boston Properties proposal if the donation is increased and the planned housing linkage project occurs within one-fourth of a mile of the West End site. Greene's agency has not settled its position on the proposal; an advisory opinion on the matter is expected to be submitted to the zoning panel by Aug. 31.

Ernestine Jackson, development director at PIC, said the housing linkage project would not likely take place within Greene's suggested one-quarter mile radius of the site because land costs too much in that area. "PIC's perspective is to make the most of the {donation}. We'd like not to see it get lost in an expensive neighborhood like Foggy Bottom or the West End," Jackson said. "There should not be concern where {the housing} will be, but if it will be."

Jackson's group is looking at other neighborhoods more than a mile from the site. The possible locations include the Shaw area and the 14th Street corridor, "where there is a greater need for low-cost housing" than in the West End, Jackson said.

Greene, who characterized the housing linkage program as "an innovative concept," said the zoning panel would not likely approve the Boston Properties proposal if the housing would not be near the West End.In its zoning application, Boston Properties said that the office building "will enhance the health, welfare, safety and convenience of the citizens of the District of Columbia."

But residents of Foggy Bottom and the West End vehemently rejected the notion that their neighborhood will reap any rewards. Rosenbaum of the neighborhood's ANC said that if other areas of the city are going to benefit from the housing linkage program, "then fine, let them get offices, too. I don't want to seem unsympathetic to the Shaw neighborhood because they have needs. But so do we, and one of our needs is housing. Where are the benefits to this community?"