South coast council wants mixed-use development along the lines of Covent Garden.
Three consortia have been shortlisted by Brighton and Hove council to build and run a £20m library and commercial complex in Brighton town centre.

A team led by Norwich Union, including HBG, Mace and architect Bennetts Associates; another led by developer Rotch, including Tarmac; and a third, US-backed team are in the running. The third team is led by Tennessee-based Partners & Associates Incorporated in partnership with local architect RH Partnership.

The project, one of the first private finance initiative library projects, involves construction of a facility on Jubilee Street in the North Lane area of the town.

The rest of the site is to be developed for housing, workshops and retail use. The council hopes the mixed-use development will be an updated version of Covent Garden in London.

Katherine Pearce, of the council's special projects division, said: "There's quite a lot of money coming into Brighton now, and we are looking for flair and imagination to pull in interesting users for this site." Under the PFI deal, the winning consortium is expected to be charged a penalty if any area of the library becomes unavailable for use.

Pearce said the council was open to negotiation over how to transfer the site and how it might benefit from income generated by the commercial elements of the scheme. The winning team will be given the library plot, but it is unclear whether it will also be given the land for the commercial buildings.

The site is now being used as a car park, after a plan for a library designed by East Sussex County Council's in-house architects was rejected at planning stage.

Libraries are still a small part of local authority PFI, but some contractors expect them to be the fastest-growing area. Projects are planned for Bournemouth and Hackney in east London. The body charged with promoting local authority PFI, the 4Ps, believes libraries will attract a lot of bidders. A spokeswoman said there was plenty of scope for the private sector to use libraries out of hours.

At Brighton, an "invitation to negotiate" is likely to be issued to bidders in August, with a winning team picked by the end of the year and work starting on site soon after that.