Hank Ratner, President & CEO, The Madison Square Garden Company...

Hank Ratner, President & CEO, The Madison Square Garden Company speaks about the Garden from a 10th floor viewing area that features a clear view of the floor. (Oct. 19, 2011) Credit: Craig Ruttle

The Knicks' court was in place yesterday morning, and Madison Square Garden never looked spiffier. There was only one thing missing: the Knicks themselves.

But NBA lockout or not, the Garden is open for business. More specifically, it is reopened for business.

It turned out the basketball court was in place only to test configurations on the day Garden CEO Hank Ratner showed off the first phase of the building's massive, three-year renovation to journalists.

The first paying customers will see the new-look arena Sunday for a concert featuring Korean groups, followed by a Duran Duran concert Tuesday. The Rangers' first home game is next Thursday.

Crews worked 24 hours a day, seven days a week through the summer on the project. Ratner said it is on time and within its projected budget. Estimated cost is expected to be about $975 million.

The first phase replaced and reconfigured the lower seating bowl, including 20 new "Event Level Suites'' and a club for other premium seat owners (from which fans can watch the teams enter and exit the playing area).

But Ratner said a high priority was amenities available to everyone, notably the vastly expanded main sixth-floor concourse and new eighth-floor and 10th-floor areas with views of the arena.

The Knicks and Rangers each got modern, oval locker rooms, complete with stylized versions of the famous Garden roof on their ceilings.

By this time next year, phase two will produce a rebuilt upper bowl seating area that is pitched more steeply, improving sight lines, and 58 new suites in the middle level of the arena.

Despite all that, reporters peppered Ratner with questions about the project's most discussed feature, one not due until 2013: two "bridges'' that will span the arena across the 10th floor. They will seat about 500 fans on each side (with room for others to stroll behind them) and hang over the seating area, not the ice or court.

Ratner said because relatively little work will be done during the season, the project will not benefit logistically if the Knicks miss significant time to the NBA lockout.

He also said that despite average price hikes of 49 percent for the Knicks and 23 for the Rangers, season-ticket renewal rates were better than 90 percent for the Knicks and 85 percent for the Rangers. "Those are high rates,'' he said. "That speaks volumes right there.''

Ratner said the grand reopening will wait until 2013. But he believes there already are "multiple wow factors'' that fans will enjoy starting next week.

"We wanted to keep the magic of the Garden and the feel of the Garden,'' he said, "but build a brand-new building.''

The Dolan family owns controlling interests in the Knicks, Rangers, MSG and Cablevision. Cablevision owns Newsday.

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