Putting political disputes aside for the day, Connecticut Governor John G. Rowland and New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr. broke ground Wednesday morning on a $15 million development project designed to bring more retail and housing to the downtown area.

While DeStefano has been an outspoken critic of Rowland in recent months, both the Democratic mayor and the Republican governor emphasized their partnership in redeveloping the Cutler Building at the corner of Chapel and Church streets. At a press conference held to celebrate the groundbreaking on the new project, DeStefano and Rowland thanked each other and posed for a photo-op at the site.

Rowland said the new project would provide both affordable housing in the downtown area and a source of jobs to city residents. He said state and city officials had demonstrated “vision, investment and partnership” in their efforts to rebuild New Haven’s downtown area.

“I’m very pleased with the progress that’s been made over the past several years, and I believe it will continue,” Rowland said.

DeStefano said the project was part of a larger effort to revitalize the city’s downtown area.

“I don’t think you build cities by building projects,” DeStefano said. “I think you build cities by building community.”

DeStefano said the completion of the Cutler Building project would completely rebuild the key downtown intersection at Chapel and Church, which the mayor called the city’s “100 percent corner.” The Cutler Building is part of the second stage of the redevelopment of the Ninth Square district, which is slated to bring 221 residential units, 138 parking spaces and 25,000 square feet of renovated commercial space to the area.

The Eckerd Corporation, a subsidiary of J.C. Penney, is scheduled to open a pharmacy on the ground floor of the Cutler Building within the next year. Many of the residential units will be slated for low-income housing.

Michael Schaffer ’72, who is directing the project for the real estate firm C.A. White, said the Cutler Building has a storied history in New Haven dating back to the mid-1800s. He said the building’s location made it an important center for activity in the city.

“It’s important that this corner — set the tone for the rest of the city,” Schaffer said.

Both politicians touted the cooperation between the city and the state on the project, even as DeStefano embarks on an effort to replace Rowland as governor in 2006. DeStefano has also frequently criticized Rowland for failing to address the budgetary woes of cities across the state.

Neither DeStefano nor Rowland mentioned state politics or the governor’s race in their remarks at the press conference. In response to a question afterwards, Rowland said he was not yet focused on the 2006 election.

“I love John DeStefano. He’s a good mayor, and a great partner in rebuilding New Haven,” Rowland said. “I don’t worry about these things.”

Rowland has not yet decided whether he will run for a fourth term as governor.

Rowland and DeStefano thanked each other during their remarks before they participated in the groundbreaking ceremony. When the two had difficulty smashing a piece of the building’s old plywood facade, Rowland joked, “It’s not nice to embarrass the governor.”

The project is scheduled to be completed by September 2004.

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