Opinion: End of an era on California Avenue | September 8, 2023 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - September 8, 2023

Opinion: End of an era on California Avenue

Jim Fruchterman: 'Cal Ave is far more vibrant today than 20 years ago. I look forward to what's next.'

by Jim Fruchterman

I recently wandered through an empty office on California Avenue: the place where my nonprofit Benetech had been located for over 20 years. This month, Benetech's lease is up and the signs will come down soon.

Of course, the offices have been empty now for three years, since the start of the pandemic, but the bittersweet moment made me think back about the change I've seen over those two decades on California Avenue.

After 9/11, Benetech's offices at Moffett Field were no longer usable for an organization working on assistive technology for people with disabilities and international human rights. The dot-com crash had created a rare opportunity by which we could afford to move to Palo Alto, where I lived. We could be next to the Caltrain, great for our employees with disabilities, and closer to our donors.

The space had been leased but never occupied by a dot-com flame-out. I remember the landlord begging us to not force her to throw away the brand-new cubicles and office furniture, since there was no market for these at the time. We were only too glad to say yes: Our tired old cubicles were ready to give up the ghost!

Then, as now, California Avenue was struggling. Offices were empty and retail space unfilled. We were even able to take over first-floor retail space for offices as we grew into being probably the largest employer in the Cal Ave commercial district, with over 50 employees.

We watched California Avenue evolve from a then-typical retail district with a mix of small local businesses into a district dominated by restaurants and gyms. We were there for the infamous Cal Ave Tree Massacre and for the broken glass sidewalks, which cut the feet of our employees' guide dogs.

Cal Ave was a terrific place to grow our nonprofit. We launched Bookshare, now the world's largest online library for people who are blind, low vision or dyslexic, which has delivered tens of millions of accessible ebooks which can be spoken aloud, made larger, or turned into braille.

Our most popular program delivers books karaoke-style (follow the bouncing ball), which is the "killer app" for most students struggling with dyslexia. We have served more than a million people with disabilities, especially students, around the country and the world. Bookshare is widely used in the area's schools, colleges and universities.

Our human rights team created Martus, the first secure application for human rights defenders, and incubated the Human Rights Data Analysis Group, the first big data group in the field. Team members even testified in genocide trials.

Those are just a few of the tech for good products we made while based on Cal Ave.

Changes in the tech industry impacted us as well. More and more of our technical people worked remotely, in Sonoma County or Sacramento, or even Wisconsin or Illinois. The Bay Area, and especially Palo Alto, became too expensive for our nonprofit wage scale, which couldn't compete with the salaries and stock incentives paid by Facebook, Google and Apple.

The pandemic hit, and most of our team moved away when freed from the need to go into an office. As turnover occurred, new hires didn't need to live in the Bay Area. The office remained empty, impossible to sublet. Finally, our lease with a wonderful family landlord (the Mefferts) expires this month.

I have a great deal of nostalgia for my old second floor office overlooking the bagel shop, but the story is not a sad one.

Benetech still thrives as a nonprofit with as many or more people, just distributed around the world. Any American student who needs an accessible book for school will still get it for free from the Bookshare online library. Benetech, while now virtual, remains proudly connected to its Palo Alto heritage, even if that's by virtue of a post box at a mailing shop on El Camino Real.

My new nonprofit, Tech Matters, incubated at Benetech on Cal Ave, is now up to 30 people, but it's no longer an office we share with Benetech, but instead another post box on El Camino!

While I miss Mr. Cho's, Antonio's Nut House, Keeble & Shuchat, and so many more longtime fixtures that have left, and I miss going there for work, Cal Ave is far more vibrant today than 20 years ago. I expect Cal Ave to continue to evolve, and look forward to what's next. n

Jim Fruchterman is a longtime Palo Alto resident who has been recognized with the MacArthur Fellowship, the Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship and as a Distinguished Alum of Caltech. He is the founder of Benetech, a Palo Alto-based nonprofit, and was its CEO for 30 years.


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