The Ollie's Trolley mural at Liberty and Race streets will come down to make way for building improvements and a new bar

A new bar coming to Over-the-Rhine requiring the removal of an iconic mural has sparked deeper conversations about neighborhood change

May 3, 2018 at 4:59 pm

click to enlarge The Ollie's Trolley mural at Liberty and Race streets will come down to make way for building improvements and a new bar
Nick Swartsell

A giant hoagie sandwich. An equally improbably sized, but very cute, dog. A normal sized (?) likeness of 1990s TV star Steve Urkel of Family Matters fameA child in a sweet vintage sweater dropping french fries into the wind.

If you’ve walked around Over-the-Rhine much — or lived there for years — the above isn’t just an assemblage of random images. It’s an iconic mural on the southeast corner of Race and Liberty streets, right at the transition between the neighborhood’s northern and southern halves. But a new bar is coming to the lot where it's located. And as it does, the mural — an advertisement on the side of a vacant building for the 25-year-old West End institution Ollie’s Trolley — will come down.

The coming bar has generated excitement. But the removal of the mural has some people upset. Meanwhile, the bar has also received pushback from residents concerned about noise and parking.

In a Facebook post, Over-the-Rhine-based Senate restaurant announced its new venture at the corner where the mural stands now. The post included renderings of a fresh white building on the small corner lot, as well as the lot as it stands today, with the colorful Ollie’s Trolley mural surrounded by a chain link fence.

Ollie’s opened in 1993 after its owner, Marvin Smith, transitioned out of a career in real estate. The trolley itself still stands — slinging burgers, hotdogs and a host of other favorites — a few blocks away, surrounded by another assortment of epic murals by the same artist featuring black leaders local and national.

The OTR mural directing drivers on busy Liberty Street toward the West End, painted in 1995 by artist William Rankins, Jr., has become a neighborhood favorite, though. Rankins, Jr. was responsible for a number of other now-removed works around the neighborhood, including a rendering of RoboCop on Vine Street that gained a cult following before it was painted over a few years ago. Rankins' son, William Rankins III, says his father recently lost his eye sight due to a stroke and cannot paint anymore.

The mural's west side is crammed full of action — a chef, presumably Smith himself, cooks on the grill near the aforementioned dog, hoagie, TV star and other characters, all painted in surprising spatial relationship to each other. Further east, however, it gets sparser, almost lonely-feeling. After a section of painted storefronts with black windows, a depiction of Ollie's Trolley is painted in the middle of the mural, featuring just an enormous hot dog, hamburger and ice cream cone floating alone. Toward the mural's end, a lone Model T-like vintage car glides along an unfinished street. Above all, a wooded hillside with some very OTR-esque buildings surveys the scene. The image seems to inadvertently echo the feeling of the neighborhood itself, and many urban neighborhoods like OTR — a place both teeming with life and color and bearing the eerie pall of emptiness stemming from disinvestment and neglect.

Senate says the mural as it stands can't be kept. At some point before the mural was painted, the restaurant says, someone applied a thin layer of cement to the underlying bricks — called parging — to shore them up. That will need to be removed before the bricks can be restored. Senate says they’ll try to save a portion of the mural, however, and will put a new one on the backside of the building when they’re finished.

"We agree is a great mural," Senate wrote in response to questions on its Facebook page, "but preserving the structure is more important.”

One person especially concerned about the mural's fate is Mt. Airy Community Council Board member and transit activist Cam Hardy. For Hardy, the mural being removed is personal — when he was 6 years old, his likeness was included in the painting, holding a sign reading "open on Sundays" behind the aforementioned giant sandwich.

Hardy's family has deep roots in the neighborhood. His grandfather owned a pool hall just down the street from the mural, and his great aunt has worked in Over-the-Rhine on Findlay Street for more than four decades.

Shortly after a family photo session 23 years ago, Hardy's mother passed along a picture of Cam to Rankins Jr., who incorporated his likeness — outfit and all — into the mural.

Hardy says the significance of being on the mural grew for him over time.

"I was pretty young," he says of the first time he saw himself on the wall. "But as I got older, it dawned on me how cool it was. I would tell friends, and they wouldn't believe me, so we'd have to go down and see it."

click to enlarge Cam Hardy's likeness on the OTR mural and the original photo artist William Rankins, Jr. worked from. - Provided
Cam Hardy's likeness on the OTR mural and the original photo artist William Rankins, Jr. worked from.

OTR Holdings Inc., a subsidiary of the Cincinnati City Center Development Corporation, has owned the building where the mural is since 2005. It was built in 1923 as an auto garage, but its last use about a decade ago was a laundromat. The building is in bad enough shape that the city has ordered it remain vacant until a number of code compliance issues are addressed. The project that will create the new Senate space would mitigate those problems.

“Big things are happening on the corner of Race & Liberty and we couldn’t be more excited,” the restaurant's original post about the building reads. “This beauty has been empty and alone far too long. We can’t wait to spruce her up. Details Coming Soon... #thisisotr #patio #construction #inlove #alwaysgucci @ Over-The-Rhine, Ohio.”

The post garnered some positive reactions.

Can't wait for another amazing spot! Love being a neighbor in OTR and having such amazing options,” one commenter wrote. “This will be like a one minute walk from my house! Keeping my fingers crossed the new patio will be dog friendly!

But the announcement has also triggered some angst.

“Is there really no way for the mural to just be restored and the patio built around it? Seems like it would fit in more with the neighborhood,” one commenter wrote. Other commenters expressed similar sentiments.

The plans for the bar project, which include two patios and encompass about 4,400 square feet from 1536-1540 Race Street, required exemptions from city parking and zoning requirements. Normally, the two patios totaling about 2,100 square feet would require the business provide 16 parking spaces, though none were provided in the original plan. The bar will also be within 500 feet of a residential district, triggering limitations on outdoor seating and requirements that the bar close earlier than the requested 2 a.m. close time.

Cincinnati Urban Conservator Beth Johnson initially recommended 3CDC's request for those exemptions be declined, citing the parking demand the concept would generate and the fact that almost half of the proposed development would be outdoor patio space — well above the zoning limit. Johnson recommended 3CDC lease parking spots in the 50-space surface parking lot it is developing across the street at 1545 Race Street.

3CDC replied to Johnson's concerns by pointing out that much of the traffic to the new bar will be pedestrian or coming via the streetcar, which stops right outside the building. It also says that one of the two outdoor areas will face Liberty Street — not near any residential buildings — and that the other space will be screened and more "low-key."

The Over-the-Rhine Community Council chimed in with its opposition to the project in a March 12 letter to the Historic Conservation Board, citing many of the same concerns. In that letter, council president Maurice Wagoner said that OTRCC heard a presentation from Senate owner Dan Wright and subsequently voted against supporting the project.

Others also oppose the bar. The HCB received 31 letters about the project from neighborhood organizations and residents. Two supported the project, and one, signed by several residents, had concerns about its operating hours but generally expressed support. The rest, however, including a number of churches and nonprofits nearby, opposed the bar and its late operating hours. 

"Our master bedroom and our daughter's nursery are the closest proximity residents to the proposed bar, just a few feet away across Goose Alley," resident Chad Brizendine wrote the HCB. "I've lived in OTR for almost ten years, and we've chosen this location on residential Republic (Street) to raise our family because it's a quiet residential street with no bars."

Several letters asked that bar hours be limited to 10 p.m. through the week and midnight on the weekends per zoning requirements.

After 3CDC arranged eight parking spaces to be leased to the bar 600 feet away, the HCB recommended approval for the variances. 

In 2017, Cincinnati City Council approved standard commercial real estate tax exemptions for the project worth about $140,000 over the 12-year life of the abatement on the assumption that the roughly $800,000 project would create 16 temporary and 5 permanent jobs.

For some, the departure of the familiar mural is an upsetting sign of changes in OTR as it further shifts from a low-income neighborhood to a higher-income one. Those changes have seen buildings rehabbed and businesses popping up, mostly in the neighborhood's southern half. But redevelopment is moving north now, and the changes haven't always been kind to long-term residents, some of whom have been displaced.

"We've seen a lot of change in OTR, but this one really hits home," Hardy says. "It just so happens to be me this time, but on a wider scale, people are slowly chipping away at the diversity of the neighborhood. It's very disappointing to me."

As of now, it looks likely that frequent walkers, cyclists and drivers passing through this busy corridor of OTR will soon no longer be greeted by the giant dog contemplating the giant sandwich. And despite an ever-growing 1990s nostalgia resurgence, the suspenders-snapping Urkel depicted on the Ollie's ad is likely history. That's rough for Family Matters fans. The Chicago house the show was filmed in was recently slated for demolition. 

Also likely lost: the painted visage of 6-year-old Cam Hardy.