The D.C. Zoning Commission took a few more hesitant steps toward deciding how to link low-income housing with downtown commercial development this week when it considered two confusing and contested cases.

The zoning board hinted that it would back a linkage plan proposed by a downtown Washington development firm, which said it would give $1.4 million to a low-income housing group in exchange for the right to build a massive new office building near the D.C Convention Center.

But in another case, the board said major changes are needed before it will reconsider the linkage plans proposed by a West End office developer.

The linkage concept, in which developers trade money for the right to bypass a particular area's zoning requirements, has gained momentum in the past six months in the District.

Housing linkage is a way for developers to build bigger office projects by giving a relatively small amount of money to a low-income housing group. For the housing groups, on the other hand, linkage can provide much-needed money.

But some Washington residential neighborhoods -- particularly in Northwest, where most office projects are built -- see housing linkage as a threat. Other critics argue that developers, at little expense, are able to buy their way around a neighborhood's existing zoning.

The District has no formal linkage standards. But the zoning board, in considering individual cases, has been grappling to establish standards.

In the first zoning case heard this week, Hadid Development Cos. proposed giving $1.4 million to the Shaw Coalition Redevelopment Corp., a nonprofit group that promotes housing in the Shaw area for low- and moderate-income families. In return, Hadid is seeking to build a 12-story, 269,000-square-foot office building at 1001 New York Ave. NW.

The zoning of that site -- across from the D.C. Convention Center -- stipulates that a structure built there to the maximum density must include some housing. Hadid has maintained that housing is not economically feasible in that area. But nearby residents dispute that claim, arguing that the area needs more housing, not offices.

For the $1.4 million, Hadid is seeking to build an additional 70,000 square feet on the site beyond the 199,000 square feet that existing zoning allows. That additional footage would give Hadid about $2 million in additional gross rent each year, not including future rent increases.

Critics of the Hadid proposal have said that new housing linked to the office development should be in the immediate vicinity. Instead, Hadid has identified a housing site located about a third of a mile away.

Zoning panel members said they are concerned that the proposed Hadid building is too tall, and have asked the developers to come back with plans for a redesigned building that would set the top two floors of the building back from the remainder of the structure. Unless the building is widened, such a "step back" could reduce the overall size of the building. And that would cut how much money -- which is based on a per-square-foot formula -- would be given to the Shaw group.

Lindsley Williams, chairman of the zoning panel, said he is concerned about losing additional housing in the downtown area.

"Here we have ... an area that is depicted as ripe for development. But we aren't getting housing downtown," he said, adding that Hadid is clearly "trying to buy additional" office space by giving funds to the Shaw group.

But one zoning board member disagreed. "We are getting housing {as close to the proposed office building} since we've been in this linkage business," said board member Maybelle Bennett.

Board members agree that the city has little information on the workings of housing linkage. None of the three linkage cases submitted to the zoning board in the past year has been evaluated by a city agency or outside group to determine if the proposed amount to be given by the development firms is equitable for the housing groups and the city.

In other cities where housing linkage is popular, local governments have had exhaustive debates on how to implement housing linkage. But in the District, linkage has been conducted on a piecemeal basis with the impetus coming from developers eager to get larger office buildings approved.

This week, the zoning board agreed to send the Hadid proposal for review to the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development.

"I'd like some sort of independent input because all we have now is {Hadid's} word," Bennett said.

John Sarpa, Hadid's senior vice president, said he does not think the board is dissatisfied with the amount of money his firm would give for low-income housing. "I certainly don't think they're trying to get us to put up more money," he said.

Sarpa said he was pleased with the board's attitude about the much-debated housing linkage concept. "It's clear they've come around and they're comfortable with the housing linkage concept," he said.

The zoning panel deferred deciding the Hadid proposal until Oct. 29.

In the second linkage case, Boston Properties, a large development firm owned by Boston real estate and publishing magnate Mortimer B. Zuckerman, made a series of new proposals designed to ease opposition voiced at a September hearing by zoning board members and West End neighborhood leaders.

Earlier this year, the firm proposed building an office structure at the corner of 25th and N streets NW on a site where, because of zoning and a three-year-old covenant, only housing is permitted. In exchange for permission to build the office tower, Boston Properties offered to give $2.2 million to a low-income housing group.

But nearby residents, already upset with office projects in their once-quiet neighborhood, objected, claiming that housing is needed in the West End. They said they also object to the developer's linkage money going to build housing in an area of the city more than two miles away from the proposed office site.

Such a distance-from-the-site argument has been a leading stumbling block in the housing linkage cases heard so far by the zoning board. Low-income housing groups have said that areas such as the West End are too expensive for housing for the poor, while Northwest neighborhood activists maintain that they should get new housing if they are expected to deal with new offices.

This week, Boston Properties returned with a new set of proposals that do not bode well for low-income housing advocates. Boston Properties' new plan calls for building housing in the West End on a nearby site it owns, an offer that almost certainly rules out low-income housing given the upscale prices of the West End.

In addition, in return for giving $300,000 to a low-income housing group for housing elsewhere, Boston Properties wants to build an eight-story building on a site that D.C. planning officials say should only hold a seven-story structure. The extra 20,000 square feet from the additional floor could be worth at least $600,000 a year in office rent for the development firm, not including future rent increases.

But zoning board members indicated that the new plan does not include enough housing on the West End site in return for approval of the 147,000-square-foot office building Boston Properties wants to construct. Zoning board chairman Williams said the proposal is also still in violation of the principle of the site's zoning and the covenant the development firm signed.

"To my way of thinking, it's an almost outright attack {on the site's zoning} and the covenant," he said. "It's a complete trampling of what we should have gotten."

In the end, Boston Properties representatives said they would be willing to shave one story off the proposed office building, but then said they would no longer consider giving the $300,000 to the low-income housing group.

Phil T. Feola, an attorney for Boston Properties, said his client is going to consider whether it will increase the size of the proposed housing project before returning to the zoning panel.