What was expected to be a straightforward vote by Hamilton City councillors to award Wraight Athfield Architecture a $150,000 contract to develop their Ferrybank Development Plan turned into a hour and a half debate on Tuesday.

One councillor warned the decision would light a fuse which would inevitably explode in the face of ratepayers.

Garry Mallett warned that the Ferrybank could cost in the tens or hundreds of millions of dollars by the time it was completed.

"We started off with $30,000, now we're approving $150,000. By the end of this step we will be up to $200,000.

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"The fuse has been lit and it's already started to cost ratepayers money and we'll be into big money very shortly."

Councillor Martin Gallagher disagreed, emphasising the final proposal would be a 30-year development concept to provide guidance.

The Wraight Athfield plan proposes to create a public promenade along the waterfront complete with a series of interconnecting terraces following the contours of the bank.

The jewel of the project will be the Waikato River/Te Awa Waikato Centre which will sit on the hillside at the bottom of Grantham Street, enjoying a prime view of the river overlooking one of the two new pontoons.

A destination playground is proposed next to the Celebrating Age Centre, which Wraight Athfield spokesperson John Hardwick-Smith said could be incorporated with the new plan.

"Equally, if it was decided it was a better choice to replace it it could accommodate that too," he said.

The Municipal Pools have been removed in the plan, but Mr Hardwick-Smith stressed the plan was highly flexible even in this respect.

Pedestrians and cyclists will have a new bridge, which is proposed to sit just north of the Waikato Museum and aims to create a looped track for visitors.

The largest planned building addition is proposed to sit on the corner of Victoria and Grantham streets and will likely be used for primarily residential space.

A large part of the council meeting was spent establishing specificity that could be gleaned from the current plan, with details such as the number of storeys unclear, leading Mr Mallett to label the plan "quite fluffy".

City planning unit manager and interim river plan manager Luke O'Dwyer said the plan was at a concept level.

"We haven't asked them to develop detailed architectural concepts and build-ready schemes for every part of this.

"That's not the purpose of the concept stage we are in," Mr O'Dwyer said.

Council CEO Richard Briggs said the next stage would be more detailed, which would allow council to see specifics, costings, and possible partnerships with second parties.

"At any stage council can pull the plug - that's the council prerogative," he said.

While re-voicing his concern that the development would dilute the city footprint when the city centre was already struggling, councillor Andrew King also pointed out some of the land was put into reserve with the express purpose of avoiding commercialisation.

Mr O'Dwyer said awarding the contract did not have any effect on land designation and any decision to change would come back to council for approval.

Certainty over possible geotechnical issues came under the spotlight, and while the tender evaluation panel, which chose Wraight Athfield, included a geotech engineer, some councillors questioned whether existing records could be relied upon.

Mr Mallett pointed towards the Victoria on the River site which was bought by the council in 2009 for $3 million for commercial development but was then found to be unstable and contaminated with heavy metals. Shortly after, council had no choice but to fix the site at an estimated cost of $4.15m.

Mr O'Dwyer said existing geotechnical information had been collated and provided to the firms before tenders.

"The Victoria on the River site has some unique geotechnical conditions about it," said Mr O'Dwyer. "It was a fill site on the edge of a bank. Most of [the buildings] we're seeing here... are on land that is not steeply slowing and has not been subject to many fills."

Mr Mallett asked whether the rowing clubs, which, under the new plan would find themselves sharing premises, had been approached for opinion.

Mr O'Dwyer said the architects had been in discussion with them as part of the planning process and there were mixed feelings.

"This is part the work that will need to be addressed as part of finalising the project," he said.

Mayor Julie Hardaker echoed the words of councillor Leo Tooman,who said too many councils had considered similar projects but got cold feet.

"Many people enjoy the pleasantries of the Wellington waterfront, the New Plymouth walkway, Auckland viaduct, even Tauranga. They don't start out of thin air. They start with plans. That's what we're doing," said Ms Hardaker.

"This isn't about the infinite details of funding models; it's about providing a plan on how it will look."

The more detailed plan will be returned to council in August, with at least two workshops between the design team and council before then.

The decision was passed by seven votes to four, with councillors Andrew King, Dave Macpherson, Karina Green and Garry Mallett voting against.

For further details on the proposed plan visit www.hamiltoncityriverplan.co.nz.