top of page

Great Park Arts Campus is Finally Taking Shape

Updated: Apr 17

After years of planning and negotiations, the Cultural Terrace is a step closer to reality.

Pacific Symphony and other arts nonprofits will occupy leased space in the new OCMD facility. Rendering courtesy CityofIrvine

The city of Irvine has greenlighted construction for two tenants of the Great Park’s dedicated neighborhood of cultural facilities, long envisioned as an integral part of its master plan: Orange County Music and Dance (OCMD), which offers arts education, performing arts training and musical experiences for children and adults; and Pretend City, an interactive, pint-sized city that encourages the physical, cognitive, language and social-emotional development of children.

The project is called The Collaborative, which represents a partnership among three nonprofits: Pretend City, OCMD and the Flying Leatherneck Aviation Museum. A fourth group may be added later.

The approval was granted during a meeting of the Great Park Board on March 26. The agreement identifies responsibilities for both the city and the arts groups, including the development of site plans and permitting. Once those conditions are met, the city will then provide Pretend City and OCMD with a 50-year year ground lease renewable for $1 per year, with optional extensions totaling 75 years.

It’s a welcome development for the Great Park, which for the last two decades has been mired in false starts, mismanagement and scuttled plans. The $1.1 billion project was approved by the voters of Orange County in 2002, but in the ensuing years it turned into a political hot potato that pitted warring factions against each other and drew mounting criticism over the many changes of planning and implementation.

But the city is now apparently back on schedule, at least with its latest plans for the Cultural Terrace.

“The lease begins most likely on Jan. 1,” said Douglas K. Freeman, executive chairman and CEO of Orange County Music and Dance. “(The city has) a fast and hard agreement with the construction company on the site that grading and improvements will be finished by the end of December. So the first day we can stick the shovel in the ground is in January. We’ll be at the permitting stage starting in June.” Construction should be completed by the fall of 2026, Freeman estimates.

Construction costs are estimated to be $500 per square foot for the 70,000-square-foot facility, which will include private teaching studios, classrooms, practice rooms, rehearsal and performance spaces. A 450-seat theater will be shared with local community groups and ensembles. OCMD’s student body will more than double, Freeman projected.

Freeman also anticipates that Pacific Symphony, Pacific Chorale and other performing arts institutions will lease office space within the complex. (Rental space is an integral part of OCMD’s long-term revenue plan, Freeman said.) 

“And the symphony’s youth orchestra will be able to practice in our building. We’ll have rehearsal halls, recital facilities, sound stage, dance studios and 27 teaching studios. It's going to be a huge facility. And (Pacific Symphony) will have a claim on using it for a given period of time during the week.” The complex will also house a 15,000-square-foot community performing arts theater, Freeman said. 

The project will be completed in two phases – the school first, then other facilities later. “It’s a $40 million build in total,” Freeman said. “We’ll have just under $12 million in cash by the end of this year. (Our existing) building is valued at $10 million to $10.5 million. We’ll sell that building. So about $22 million is either committed or received. We’re looking to raise $18 million for construction.”

The new facility will allow OCMD to realize its dreams, Freeman said. 

“Our present facility works great for lessons, but we don’t have enough performance space. And the acoustics were never well-designed in an office building that was renovated. The first goal is to give our students performance opportunities.

“And we’re crowded,” he said. “Our facility can handle about 300-350 kids. We want to expand to 600.” 

Another ambitious OCMD project is increasing its endowment for tuition from $3.5 million to $5 million, Freeman said. “That endowment ensures that a minimum of 40 percent of our kids will be able to have financial aid, even if we get a lot bigger.”

The new $65 million Great Park facility for Pretend City will almost quadruple its present size. Rendering courtesy of Pretend City

A Popular But Crowded Kids’ Attraction Gets A Big New Home

Pretend City’s new home near OCMD will be equally impressive.

“We’ll be in a giant hangar that will be a combination of indoor and outdoor learning spaces,” said Ellen Pais, executive director of Pretend City. Pais said the footprint of the Pretend City campus will almost quadruple the size of its present site. “We currently have 13,000 square feet, and when we move we’ll have 20,000 square feet indoors and 29,000 square feet outdoors.”

Pais said the expansion will allow Pretend City to greatly diversify what it currently offers to kids. “We’ll have an increased number of learning spaces. We’ll have a skyscraper climbing structure and an indoor-outdoor fire station, a grocery store and a health center. In addition to a lot of our old favorites, (there’ll be) a lot of new things. There’ll be some really fun spaces for kids to explore in the outdoor area as well, including a farm.”

The construction timeline for Pretend City’s new facility is similar to OCMD’s, Pais said. And like OCMD’s complex, Pretend City’s new home will have space for other nonprofits. “In addition to having the learning spaces and museum, we’ll have other partners with us in the building,” Pais said. They may include Beyond Blindness, the Orange County Department of Education and the Orange County chapter of the National Association for the Education of Young Children, which represents early childhood education teachers, trainers, college educators, families, policy makers and advocates.

Pais is also excited that visitors can get a nutritious meal at the new Pretend City. “We’ll have a restaurant that will be open to the general public. It will serve breakfast, lunch and dinner, and there will also be takeout. And there’ll be adult beverages too.”

The cost of the new Pretend City complex is estimated at $65 million, Pais said. “We have identified 68% of the funding. We have major funding from several donors, including the Samueli Foundation. And we have a $26.5 million interest-free loan from the city of Irvine.” 

Pais praised Irvine officials for making the Cultural Terrace easily accessible to anyone visiting the Great Park. “The city is providing a whole area that families can come and spend the day in. They can park, visit us, see a concert at OCMD, see the airplanes at Leatherneck. They can also come over here from the sports park.” A total of about 1,000 parking spaces will be available for the Cultural Terrace, Pais said. 

The expansion of Pretend City is long overdue. Pais pointed out that it has evolved over the course of its 15-year history from a local into a regional attraction and has outgrown its home.

“Right now we’re overflowing our current space. People are waiting in line to come into Pretend City. Traditionally, about 70 percent of the people who come here are from Orange County and 30 percent travel from (elsewhere). But last month that number went from 70/30 to 50/50. We are very much a regional destination.”


Douglas K. Freeman, quoted in this story, is a member of the advisory board for Culture OC. 


Copy of Med. Rectangle_ Subscribe.png

Support for Culture OC comes from

July 2024.png
Copy of 15.png
Editor Picks


Blair’s concept art for Walt Disney’s animated “Alice in Wonderland” (1951) showcased her vibrant, stylized approach, and whimsical, surreal designs.

Support for Culture OC comes from

24-07-15 CAROUSEL - HILBERT - Hilbert_MaryBlair_Google_300x250_1.png
bottom of page