The $1 billion next phase of the Great Park project in Orange County, Calif. is set to transform the former World War II-era military base into one of the biggest municipal parks in the nation when work is completed in ten years.

Phase one of the 1,300-acre Great Park project broke ground May 23 in Irvine, set to include north and south lakes, an amphitheater, several museums, botanic garden, Veterans Memorial Park and Gardens, an aquatic center, sport complex and other enhancements. 

City officials say the project, when completed, will be twice the size of New York’s Central Park

“After many years of community input and after the last year of intensive planning and design,”  says Irvine City Councilman Michael Carroll who serves as Chairman of the Great Park Board. "We are excited to be launching what is a $1 billion investment to establish the world’s next great metropolitan park.”

Project funding comes from community and redevelopment-related settlement funds as well as three bonds that will grant the city $455 million but will cost more than $1 billion to pay off over the next three decades, says Melissa Haley, deputy city manager.

SWA Group and Kellenberg Studios of Irvine are handling the project design, but Irvine has not retained a structural engineer, she says. 

RFPs for the project “have gone out, and continue to go out, on a rolling basis at the planet bids website,” Carroll says. The Veterans Memorial Park is expected to break ground in the next 45 days

The park is on the site of the former El Toro Marine Corps Air Station that was closed in 1999. Voters approved the Great Park development in 2002, followed by approval from the U.S. Navy. Financial woes caught up with the project in 2008 after that era's downturn, and in 2011, former California Gov. Jerry Brown disbanded redevelopment agencies. 

In 2012, the project stalled when the state took $1.4 billion in property tax funds meant for the project during a deficit crisis. 

Work now is underway on demolition on 77 structures that have to be removed from the northern part of the park, as city officials work with the FAA to retain the El Toro air traffic control tower.

Today, the portion of the Great Park currently open to visitors falls short of what had been promised and is located in a corner of the former airbase offering a tethered balloon, an arts complex, carousel and soccer field. The Wild Rivers Waterpark opened in 2022.

The city also approved last year the Great Park Framework Plan to guide the next phase of development – another 300 acres that include lakes, gardens, live music, museums, wide open meadows, and space to honor military veterans. With a completion date of 2032, a groundbreaking in May heralded the next phase “with a full buildout expected in years thereafter,” says Haley.

“Creating a Great Park is an act of hope," says Sean O’Malley, SWA Group managing principal.