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Nonprofit Art School Plots $40M Project at Irvine’s Great Park

Orange County Music & Dance (OCMD) has a major expansion on its playbill.

The nonprofit performing arts school, co-founded by local entrepreneur and philanthropist Charlie Zhang, is planning a new $40 million facility at Irvine’s Great Park.

The 85,000-square-foot facility would include education and practice spaces, rehearsal rooms, an auditorium, and offices, according to city filings. The building could also serve as the administrative home for several other local music- and art-related organizations, including the Pacific Symphony, Lyric Opera and Pacific Chorale.

The project would be a big step up in size for OCMD, which currently operates out of a 21,000-square-foot building elsewhere in the city, along Fitch Avenue. The nonprofit would sell that building to pay for a portion of the new facility and would fund the remainder of the project via a commercial construction loan secured by donation pledges, according to city filings.

Property records show Zhang paid $8.2 million in 2016 for the Fitch Avenue facility.

The City of Irvine late last month approved a plan that will move OCMD’s expansion plans forward, alongside another nearby $65 million facility at the former Marine Corps Air Station El Toro base that will serve as the new home for fellow nonprofit Pretend City.

“Moving to the Great Park is going to be an incredible gift to the community and to the kids we’re serving,” OCMD’s Executive Chairman and Chief Executive Douglas Freeman told the Business Journal.

Bigger Stage

Pick Up Stix founder Zhang and Freeman created OCMD to provide top quality musical arts education and training for children, regardless of their family’s ability to pay.

It currently serves close to 400 students. Most hail from Irvine, Costa Mesa, Tustin and Santa Ana.

Its existing, 21,000-square-foot facility opened in 2017, and includes practice rooms, classrooms and studio space for recording and dance. It also counts a 140-seat theater.

The new plans mark a major upsizing of the nonprofit’s ambition.

OCMD’s new building is to include 27 studios, 10 practice rooms and a sound stage.

Preparing students for professional conservatories and careers “requires a lot of space,” Freeman said. “The demand for the kind of instruction that we provide definitely exceeds capacity.”

Out of the 85,000 square feet, 15,000 square feet will be allotted for a 450-seat theater that OCMD plans to also make available to the community.

“We will have enough room for local schools to bring their kids or local ensembles, jazz groups and other groups that usually have no place to go,” Freeman said.

Student Boost

OCMD currently brings in around $2.5 million in revenue annually, according to tax filings. It is currently operating near its maximum capacity of students; the school saw attendance fall in the early stages of the pandemic, when it had to temporarily close and shift to online learning, but has since rebounded.

“We lost a few years, but we’re building up again,” Zhang told the Business Journal.

During a visit to the school’s current location in late 2022, Irvine City Manager Oliver Chi proposed the move to the Great Park, putting in motion the current plans, Zhang said.

“We wanted to take that opportunity to build a state-of-the-art facility for the next generation,” Zhang said.

Zhang, who now runs Laguna Niguel-based real estate investment firm Zion Enterprises after selling Pick Up Stix for $50 million in 2001, was inspired to start the community music school because while growing up in Shanghai, he played the clarinet and was offered a scholarship to a music academy in Los Angeles, which brought him to the U.S.

Boosting Visibility

“Most people don’t know we exist because we’re a young school,” Freeman said.

The relocation to the Great Park will boost its visibility, and its enrollment. The new space should be large enough to double the number of students OCMD can enroll, Freeman said.

Currently, about 40% of the school’s students are on financial aid, according to Freeman.

Those who can’t afford tuition, which averages from $50 to $100 per lesson, are supported by an endowed scholarship fund.

OCMD also offers programs geared toward military veterans, as well as seniors with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.

Freeman said the school is starting to work to publicize its work to aid in raising the funds needed to cover the cost of development for the new building.

Pretend City’s New Home

Pretend City, a nonprofit that operates a children’s museum and provides early childhood development services, has its own expansion plans in the works at the Great Park.

It is planning a $65 million facility at an area of the city-owned park that’s called the Cultural Terrace, close to the forthcoming new home for Orange County Music & Dance.

The new development will include 20,000 square feet of indoor and 20,000 square feet of outdoor exhibit spaces, alongside offices, facilities, and a new restaurant, among other things.

Pretend City will also have rentable spaces for partner nonprofits in Orange County, such as inclusive preschool Beyond Blindness and mental health services organization Start Well.

“Pretend City is looking forward to bringing our early learning and child development programs to even more families, helping them ensure their children are growing up healthy and ready to succeed in school,” Executive Director Ellen Pais said in a statement.

The museum describes itself as “the world in a nutshell,” with 19 interactive exhibits in a kid-sized city including a post office, Trader Joe’s grocery store and a fire station.

With the added space, Pretend City will be able to create 14 new learning exhibits and serve up to four times more visiting school children annually, according to its website.

The new project is expected to be funded via a combination of public funds, private philanthropy, corporate sponsorships, a bridge construction loan and a $26.5 million loan provided by the city.

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