Businessman’s Mansion has brought millions worth of income tax to Upper Arlington
By Dean Narciso
The priciest home in Franklin County 25 years ago was a stone mansion with a bridge, waterfalls, horse barns and a moat — a showpiece of success in Upper Arlington’s northwest corner.
Owner Albert J. DeSantis was an emblem of capitalism with a net worth of $50 million, his empire built, in part, by rehabbing and renting more than 3,000 housing units in the University District and operating six N. High Street bars.
Business success ultimately turned to tax evasion and securities and mail fraud and ended in bankruptcy, lawsuits and, in 1996, prison. And from that decline, and the rubble of his personal estate, sprung one of Upper Arlington’s most-profitable intersections.
DeSantis’ 17-acre property, which includes the Arlington Falls Office Campus, has become a major income-tax engine, pumping $2.6 million into the local economy between 2000 and 2010. The revenue is guaranteed to increase because many of the tax incentives and abatements granted to businesses there have either expired or soon will, said Emma Speight, city spokeswoman.
Don Lee, the president of Horizons Cos., a multimedia production company, recalls purchasing the property after the bankruptcy 12 years ago. “It was a great opportunity,” he said of the $1.8 m illion purchase price. “We got a lot of square footage at, like, half price.”Today, Lee’s video technicians work from DeSantis’ former horse stalls, refurbished with electronics and soundproofing but keeping the original Dutch doors.
“He went to great lengths to build this posh barn,” Lee said of DeSantis.
Several other companies now operate from the mansion’s subdivided office suites, including financial planners, computer services, law firms and a travel agency. Other tenants fill nine office buildings nearby.
When the property on the northeast corner of Henderson Road and Riverside Drive became available, Upper Arlington wanted the corner to become the city’s northern gateway, “the most beautiful corner in the city,” Todd Holtslaw, of developer Bedrock Group, said in 2005.
The city didn’t want homes or stores built there, said Matt Byrne, who developed the property with Holtslaw.“Our target became entrepreneurial-related business services with owners living 1 to 3 miles away,” Byrne said. “And we hit it right on. People were starting to not want to drive Downtown to work anymore.
“We’re proud of it. The city’s proud of it. The city often uses it as a reference to how development can happen and be upscale.”
“It was one of our very first economic development projects,” said Cathe Armstrong, Upper Arlington’s finance director. “There was a lot of potential there. It has been a huge success.”
Renovations included a nod to DeSantis’ influence and notoriety.
“At one time we considered calling it DeSantis Falls. We thought about it for about 20 minutes,” Byrne said, but then they realized the double meaning. City officials considered closing off Henderson Road at Riverside to preserve the road’s country feel and prevent potential traffic snarls.
But tax incentives helped create Horizons Drive, and full access from Riverside Drive and Henderson Road.
That “enhanced interest in the Arlington Falls Office Campus,” according to the city’s website.The mansion’s stone facade and fortresslike presence remain, a lasting symbol of DeSantis’ rise.
There was little public note of DeSantis’ death in 2009 at age 65, seven years after his release from prison. Gregarious in public, he also was very private, “a reclusive kind of guy,” said his nephew Dr. Mike DeSantis, 47, of Hickory, N.C.
“He was proud of what he accomplished,” said DeSantis, who helped rehab his uncle’s properties while in medical school. “I think he would have been proud of the renovation or the businesses taking off where his home was. What he did — the good versus the bad — anyone can judge for themselves.”