IT STARTED unpromisingly enough in a kitchen in central Phoenix in 1986. Pat Coultrap and Mary DeConcini were venting their frustration over the proposed Esplanade development. They knew it would bring dense traffic and cut off their neighborhood's view of Squaw Peak, but developer Fife Symington had the city council sewed up tight.

The neighborhood lost and the glass-and-stone towers were built, but the movement born of this fight grew steadily, feeding on the outrage people felt as the Esplanade story was repeated in one place after another across the booming Eighties.

Neighborhood preservation, though never more than a loose coalition of activist homeowner groups, became the rallying cry for the most important grassroots political phenomenon in Phoenix.

And now the neighborhood movement is poised to emerge as the controlling force on the Phoenix City Council. The significance of this change, and the swiftness with which it has occurred, is startling. The city council has changed from an institution that kowtowed reflexively to developers, creating a city in which nothing is safe from the wrecking ball, to one in which half the sitting members are allies or alumni of the Neighborhood Coalition of Greater Phoenix, dedicated to fending off uglification.

The October 1 election will decide whether the neighborhoods can hold onto what they've won, and add the critical fifth seat they need to dominate city government in the Nineties. The key battle for this seat is in District 5 in west Phoenix, where incumbent John Nelson is facing a tough challenge from neighborhood activist Barbara Wyllie. (Nelson currently represents District 4, but redistricting changed the boundaries and assigned a new number to his area.)

Both are longtime residents of the area, but the similarities end there. Nelson, whose campaign war chest has been sumptuously endowed by developers across the Valley, is the council's most staunchly pro-business member. Wyllie, a former aide to Councilmember Linda Nadolski, is one of the founding members of the Neighborhood Coalition.

Among business interests, the prospect of a neighborhood-activist majority is frightening. "These are awfully tough times and the development community feels, because MD120 Col 1, Depth P54.02 I9.03 of her background, Wyllie won't be sympathetic," says one prominent Phoenix zoning attorney.

The coalition contends that a pro-neighborhood majority could change the way Phoenix is governed, putting quality of life far ahead of the venality that seems to drive so much decision-making in City Hall. Right now, the developers have four votes and the neighborhoods have four votes; developers have to go shopping for a fifth vote when they want something. "With a clear neighborhood majority, it won't be nearly as easy to engineer defections," says a City Hall insider.

BARBARA WYLLIE IS the first real competition John Nelson has faced since being elected to represent west Phoenix when the city first was divided into districts in 1983. For the past eight years, Nelson has been the council's quietest member, considered colorless even by those who admire him.

Nelson, a fair, slight figure peering owlishly from behind thick glasses, has plenty of admirers. "He is the only councilman in the last ten or fifteen years, with maybe one exception, who possesses real business savvy," says a Phoenix business lobbyist. "Despite that, he's not an automatic vote for developers. He judges projects on their merits and if he thinks yours is bad, he can be your worst opponent."

Maryvale business leaders, who are campaigning vigorously for Nelson, contend he has served his district well. "John knows the district and its needs," says Claude Mattox, his campaign manager. "He has worked for a lot of improvements that people here really feel, such as putting cops on school campuses to reduce crime, working for the elimination of chip-sealing and getting needed street improvements done."

Nelson's biggest fans, however, are the Valley's developers, according to campaign finance records. He began the campaign with nearly $100,000 in his treasury, salted away during the past eight years. No other incumbent on the council, except for Mayor Paul Johnson, comes close to matching Nelson's huge campaign fund.

Nearly three-quarters of Nelson's money came from contributors in Scottsdale and Paradise Valley, the records show. "His campaign reports read like a who's who of the development industry," says Barbara Wyllie. "Why are these Paradise Valley and Scottsdale people backing Nelson? Col 3, Depth P54.02 I9.03 rejecting a development. Protecting a business's right to operate is a concrete goal, but protecting a neighborhood's "quality of life" is nebulous, and Nelson is always more comfortable with the concrete.

While the Neighborhood Coalition has worked relentlessly to strengthen the enforcement of zoning laws, the general plan and other tools for controlling development, Nelson says, "We have so many regulations now it is almost impossible to build affordable housing."

(Community housing advocates are inclined to see the problem differently. "There's no shortage of housing, but a lot of working-class families are kept out by impossible lending standards," says Martin Shalloo, director of housing for the nonprofit community group ACORN.)

Nelson contends he is "running on my experience," and his campaign brag sheet lists three pages of his efforts on behalf of neighborhoods, schools, crime control and cultural improvement.

"I was a neighborhood activist before it was popular," he declares. Nelson is particularly proud of having sponsored the property-maintenance ordinance and the abandoned-vehicle ordinance, under which the city can force property owners to clean up trash or abandoned vehicles cluttering their land.

Nelson has launched several different programs in the district to help fight crime, ranging from graffiti eradication to organizing neighborhood Block Watches. Nelson claims that two school-based programs he helped start, peer counseling and cops on campus, have significantly reduced crime on elementary and high school campuses in his gang-plagued district.

Despite these accomplishments, Nelson is reviled as an "antineighborhood icon" by leaders of the Valleywide Neighborhood Coalition. "He is the most predictable antineighborhood vote on the city council," says former coalition president Peter Martori.

Critics accuse Nelson of backing developers' efforts to trim the power of village-planning councils, neighborhood groups and the city's general plan. Nelson also has supported controversial developments like Tatum Ranch, a huge, high-intensity development near the city's northern border with Carefree. Critics called Tatum Ranch a perfect example of urban sprawl.

"Every time a development like Tatum Ranch is approved, it increases

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Kathleen Stanton