Fourteen years before Tesla would open a 4.2 million-square-foot factory in Travis County, Douglas Gilliland bought the 2,000-acre property in East Austin that would become the Whisper Valley community.

Before building houses, his team laid 7 miles of off-site water lines, starting in 2014. They also built a wastewater plant and miles of roadway, said Gilliland, president of real estate firm Taurus of Texas.

Now, there are 300 new families in the neighborhood, 400 homes under construction and more planned as Tesla attracts new residents.

“All the developers right now are having a hard time getting enough lots on the ground to meet the demand,” Gilliland said.

But as homes spring up, District 2 City Council Member Vanessa Fuentes said infrastructure, including access to food and child care, is already too weak for her district’s current population.

“The future of Austin is east,” she said. “It’s where the land is affordable, where there’s space, but we have to ask ourselves as policymakers, do we have the infrastructure needed to make sustainable communities?”

Catching up

East Austin’s infrastructure has been inequitable for generations, and poverty persists, said eastern Travis County Commissioner Jeff Travillion.

Travillion said private and public entities ignored East Austin when it was a segregated Black district and have continued to make policy decisions that hurt the area. He points out there is still no hospital there today.

“You’ve built an area that you have deprived for years and years and you put landfills on it and then when it’s pointed out what you’ve done, you say, ‘Well, we don’t have any more money,’” Travillion said. “We are a wealthy city.”

One persistent issue is unsafe roads. These will become more dangerous and traffic-jammed with more drivers, Travillion said.

The city has identified at least four substandard roads east of I-35: Johnny Morris, Ross, Bradshaw and Nuckels Crossing roads.

“[Certain] things are necessary so a workforce can actually get out there and work,” Travillion said. “We have to make sure we’re solving problems that we know are the result of institutional racism, and if we don’t, the responsibility lies with us.”

Travillion said the city and county must work together to address streets and ensure locals have easy access to food and child care, which will help them fill roles at Tesla and other incoming businesses.

“It’s hard to be comfortable and do excellent work if you don’t know that your child is safe,” he said.

Travillion said eastern Travis County also faces poverty. A Central Health report found poverty rates decreased in parts of east Central Austin in 2020 but increased east of US 183.

In Del Valle ISD, which serves Southeastern Travis County, 87.9% of students were economically disadvantaged, per 2019-20 data.

Fuentes said low-income families in Southeast Austin are isolated by low access to transit and broadband internet services. They also face a deficit of grocery stores, pharmacies, child care facilities, community centers and usable parkland, she said.

Southeast Austinites have been pushing for a pharmacy for years and the first east of I-35 and south of Hwy. 290 opened in December. One grocery store supplies the area, according to the city’s map of full-service grocery stores. That H-E-B is about 12 miles southwest of Tesla.

“What I want to make sure is that the families who work at Tesla are able to live in the area [and] have a park or access to a grocery store,” Fuentes said.

Addressing the needs

One roadblock to expanding infrastructure in East Austin could be the patchwork of city and county entities that govern it, said Anna Martin, Austin Transportation Department assistant director.

“It takes us all working together to make the investments work,” Martin said.

She said that collaboration is happening. The county has designed plans for several existing East Austin roadways and completed construction on at least nine in the area. The county also has plans for new arterials.

City Council adopted the Austin Strategic Mobility Plan in 2019, which laid out a street network. As developers come in, they are required to lay roads according to that plan, Martin said.

Through massive bonds, the city has also dedicated tens of millions to improving substandard roads, Martin said.

Fuentes said safe sidewalks are also crucial. The 2016 mobility bond identified 22 miles of sidewalk in high need of repair plus 2 miles of new sidewalk needed in District 2, which includes Southeast Austin, according to data from Austin Public Works.

Meanwhile, Austin libraries have been working to improve internet and health care access, Austin Public Library spokesperson Emi Johnson said.

Libraries had at least 120 Chromebooks and 190 Wi-Fi hotspots circulating in Southeast Austin in December, Johnson said. Using funds from the American Rescue Plan Act, libraries will also be able to build private sound-proofed spaces where residents can attend virtual doctor’s visits.

To address the lack of grocery stores and food insecurity, Travillion is working with the Central Texas Food Bank to create food pantries in schools that are more than 2 miles from the nearest grocery store and are designated as Title 1. Most of the city’s food deserts are east of I-35, according to the United States Department of Food and Agriculture.

“My job is to make sure we are building a system that uses the existing public spaces like schools and community centers to give people the services they need while we try to attract businesses like Tesla,” he said.Sustaining the community

Gilliland said developers will lay much of the groundwork for road and water line expansion in areas around Tesla.

Beyond meeting basic needs, Gilliland said Whisper Valley and similar developments focus on environmental sustainability and self-sufficiency.

During Tesla’s annual stockholder meeting Oct. 7, founder Elon Musk said he wants to create an “ecological paradise” in Travis County, though details of his vision are unclear.

Justin Lindabury, a landscape architect at TBG Partners, said his group has been focused on designing parks east of I-35 and the master-planned community Easton Park near the Tesla Gigafactory.

“[Tesla] really keeps us pushing the envelope on what Austin already is, with sensitivity to the environment,” Lindabury said.

What Gilliland said he does not expect is a landscape full of mansions.

“The Tesla effect will draw many, many businesses to the east side,” Gilliland said. “The income paid to those employees will justify starter homes. ... You need houses in the [$200,000s].”

Travillion’s said his biggest hope is that the city and county will invest in infrastructure with the area’s lowest income residents in mind, “before gentrification occurs.”

Travillion said Tesla itself will meet some needs in the area, including revamping the former Harold Green Road, now Tesla Road.

“If we do things intentionally up front, if we understand the depth and breadth of the problem, we can mitigate a lot of these issues,” Travillion said.