A federal agency that few citizens know about, the National Capital Planning Commission, is quietly, diligently, sometimes controversially at work in Washington.

NCPC is responsible for preparing the federal components of the Comprehensive Plan for the National Capital and for approving all new federal buildings in the District of Columbia.

In addition, NCPC reviews and offers advice for new federal buildings and installations within the "National Capital Region" -- defined by statute as the District, Maryland's Prince George's and Montgomery counties, and Virginia's Arlington, Fairfax, Prince William and Loudoun counties (including municipalities within these counties) -- and for new D.C. government buildings in and around Washington's monumental core and urban renewal areas.

It even reviews state, county and city policies and plans -- including comprehensive master plans, zoning and capital improvement programs -- to "determine if there is an adverse impact on the federal interest" in the National Capital Region.

Finally, NCPC prepares and submits annually to the Office of Management and Budget a five-year Federal Capital Improvements Program, a comprehensive wish list gathered from all federal agencies for their facilities in the region.

NCPC's twelve-member commission consists of seven ex-officio and five appointed members: three chosen by the president, including one each from Virginia and Maryland, and two D.C. residents chosen by the mayor. Ex-officio members are the secretaries of Defense and Interior, the head of the General Services Administration, the mayor and the chairmen of the D.C. Council, the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs and the House Committee on the District of Columbia.

The commission began in 1924 as the National Capital Park Commission, established to acquire park and parkway land for the National Capital. Two years later another act ambitiously converted it into the National Capital Park and Planning Commission, responsible for "preparing and maintaining a comprehensive, consistent and coordinated plan for the National Capital and its environs." The plan was to include recommendations for highways, bridges, parks, waterfronts, zoning and public and private buildings.

A 1952 act again renamed the agency and designated it "the central planning agency for the federal and District of Columbia governments," its mission being to "plan the appropriate and orderly development and redevelopment of the National Capital and the conservation of important natural and historical features." But in 1973, the D.C. Home Rule Act amended the 1952 act, making the District's mayor responsible for overall planning and, with city council approval, enacting the District elements of the Comprehensive Plan for the National Capital.

Once powerful and pervasive, NCPC today has a lower profile, too low according to current chairman Glen T. Urquhart. He contends that "a new mandate from Congress is needed" in light of the "ascendancy of parochial interests, both public and private. Comprehensive planning is at times not even coordinated, let alone comprehensive."

Urquhart -- and other commissioners and commission staff -- is convinced that the 1952 National Capital Planning Act, which designated NCPC as the central planning agency for the federal and district governments, is no longer appropriate for the 1990s or for the century to come.

Like many others, Urquhart believes that the capital city, which extends well beyond the District, is in danger of losing its visual uniqueness as uncoordinated development encroaches on vistas and open spaces. Fragmented planning and zoning, overburdened transportation systems and inadequate public facilities threaten to make the capital region a new kind of Los Angeles rather than an extension of L'Enfant's vision.

Looking ahead to the mid 21st century, Urquhart predicts technological changes will dramatically alter patterns of dwelling, employment and travel. The explosion of information, new transportation modes and more efficient energy use will produce new kinds of jobs for an ever greater but more decentralized work force. Increasingly sophisticated telecommunication systems will allow the capital region's boundaries, and the federal presence, to reach many miles farther out into Maryland and Virginia.

Yet Urquhart clearly intends to revive and adhere to the stated goals of the 1952 National Capital Planning Act: "Congress hereby finds that the location of the seat of government in the District of Columbia has brought about the development of a metropolitan region extending well into adjoining territory in Maryland and Virginia; that effective comprehensive planning is necessary on a regional basis."

The act declares further "that there is an increasing mutuality of interest and responsibility between various levels of government that calls for coordinated and unified policies in planning both federal and local development in the interest of order and economy ... that there are developmental problems of an interstate character."

Given these still valid stipulations of 35 years ago, Urquhart's projections for 35 years -- or more -- hence, plus the ad hoc, patchwork-quilt process of planning so prevalent today, Urquhart suggests new legislation that would:

Stretch the National Capital Region to include Stafford, Fauquier and Anne Arundel counties.

Extend NCPC's approval authority to all federal projects in the region, not just D.C. -- for example, Pentagon expansion is not subject to NCPC approval, only its advice.

Grant NCPC review and approval authority over all major, federally funded projects in the National Capital Region.

Augment and broaden commission representation with more members selected nationally and regionally, and with more planning and design professionals.

Consolidate within NCPC authority to carry out physical planning for all federal agencies in the region -- $2 billion in annual capital improvement budgets for federal projects are usually "fait accompli" when presented to NCPC for coordination, according to Urquhart.

Allow NCPC to plan and package development opportunities for public-private ventures to pursue (like Australia's National Capital Development Commission).

Remove NCPC from the review process for projects having no federal impact.

NCPC wants to "develop a new vision for the federal presence in this region over the next 50 to 75 years." Its aspirations, while raising many questions, seem worthy of further consideration both by Congress and by this region's governments. Perhaps an expanded, more powerful NCPC could become the catalyst for making comprehensive regional planning a reality.

Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor of architecture at the University of Maryland.